A Perfect Role for Foundations: Finding and Spreading Solutions - Exponent Philanthropy
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A Perfect Role for Foundations: Finding and Spreading Solutions

One of the most sought-after goals in philanthropy is finding effective solutions to society’s problems. Foundations are well positioned to accomplish this. Free from the pressure of pleasing customers, voters, and shareholders, foundations can focus their money and knowledge on supporting people and organizations testing new approaches to pressing social and environmental issues.

As many have said, philanthropy can be thought of as the research and development arm of our society. Foundations doing R&D are usually portrayed as supporting start-up programs, social entrepreneurs, and research of various kinds.

But what if some powerful solutions have already been invented, and are waiting to be used? What if some solutions don’t need development; they just need more people knowing about them and using them?

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy called Regional Grant Makers Hold the Key to Containing Health-Care Costs, Mark Kramer argues just this—that powerful innovations created in local communities can be spread with promotion and networking—and that small foundations have just the skills and resources to make that happen.

Focusing on health care, Kramer describes a two-minute presurgical checklist that dramatically reduces post-surgical infections and deaths. Despite its low cost and simplicity, this innovation had difficulty catching on, in part because of the weight of long-standing practice. Kramer argues that a regional foundation would be the perfect organization to spread the word, using its local connections, reputation and neutrality, and voice.

In another example: Many asthma-related emergencies among children can be prevented by simple practices at home such as using vacuum cleaners, and using inhalers more effectively. In one community, a coalition of local foundations and other organizations helped hospitals and insurers overcome barriers, and spread word of these practices.

Has someone creative in your community thought of a great solution, only to see it languish? How could your foundation develop its capacity to uncover and promote small but powerful innovations? What questions would you ask to find them?

Down your street, or around the corner, a great idea may be waiting to be noticed.

Senior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.


  1. Frederick Leonhardt

    These examples sound similar to the examples that Chip and Dan Heath present in their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.” (Chip spoke about and attendees received a copy of Switch at the 2010 COF Annual Conference up in Denver.) Switch also has good examples of technical solutions versus adaptive solutions. Which reminds me that ASF had a great workshop up in Denver at the 2008 National Conference on the power of intuition in the grantmaking process. The workshop was put on by Chet Tchozewski and Gabriel Works. From the workshop description we hear:

    “What are the best ways to address social problems? Though data and analysis [e.g., technical solutions] offer some answers, we’ll examine the powers and perils of experienced-based ‘soft knowledge’ and the role of intuition [e.g., adaptive solutions] in grantmaking.”

    It was a great workshop. As the presenters made clear, social problems usually consist of both technical and adaptive components, and both should be considered. As an aside, the topic of intuition in grantmaking has generated spirited dialog on the ASF ListServ.

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