One emerging research interest is the role of foundations in social change and urban development. In the origin story of community development corporations, the role of foundations is key, especially Ford Foundation’s Local Initiatives Support Corporation and the Enterprise Foundation, which was started by festival marketplace developer James Rouse. I have only skimmed this super long article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review but found it an interesting snapshot of current trends. The article acknowledges the vogue for contests and competitions as funding mechanisms has many drawbacks. “Funders who have tried using contests and competitions often find it difficult to boil down challenges to a simple, solvable problem… and it remains unclear whether contest “winners” end up exceeding the quality of more traditionally sourced grantees.”
EIGHT WAYS TO INJECT INNOVATION INTO GRANTMAKING
Not everyone is ready to launch an innovation fund or to start comprehensively shifting an organization’s culture. There are, however, some simple ways that funders can begin to embed innovation principles in their work. Here are a few baby steps one can take to get started:
1. Make deliberate out-of-strategy grants. Dedicate 10 percent of your grantmaking budget to support projects that seem promising but don’t fit neatly into your strategy. Each quarter, hold a meeting to discuss what has been learned from this “out-of-strategy” grantmaking.
2. Ask your grantees. Grant recipients bring a perspective on the field very different from foundation staff’s. Solicit ideas from your grantees about emerging ideas and who is doing work that is pushing the envelope.
3. Assess your portfolio. Review your grantmaking portfolio, giving each grant a subjective score for its level of risk and its potential for reward. Plot the results on a graph and have a conversation with stakeholders to discuss whether you are taking enough risks and what type of balance between risk and reward feels appropriate.
4. Tap into your network. Select a small, informal group of advisors, and every six months, ask them to tell you about the most interesting new ideas that they’re seeing, whether the ideas are a fit for your grantmaking or not.
5. Use your special opportunity fund. Many foundations have a fund that is used to support pet projects from board members and other ad hoc requests. Use a portion of that fund to explore a new area that is tangential to your primary strategies but shows potential.
6. Host an innovation contest. Hold a conversation with staff about how they define innovation, and then run a contest to identify one or two grantees that the staff feels are most innovative. Provide the winner(s) with a small, flexible grant to encourage the behavior.
7. Bring in a futurist. There are many experts who look ahead, trying to see and understand trends and patterns as they emerge. Invite one of these forward thinkers in to talk with your board or staff to see if they prompt new thinking.
8. Follow provocative thinkers. Find 10 people who are exploring new concepts and approaches and follow them via Twitter or blog posts, cataloging the ideas they mention. Then host a discussion among staff or board members to see what new thinking the ideas might prompt.