"Innovation" is one of those terms with many connotations, so it's important to consider what you mean when you use it in your philanthropy. If you don't have a clear definition, it leaves the onus to define and deliver innovation completely up to others, or it implies that innovation is something that "just happens." Further, lack of clear definition has come to imply that innovation must be a dramatic, game-changing, disruptive new idea or practice: the iPhone of early childhood education, the Post-It note of economic development.
Funders give little or no thought to how they expect grantees to be innovative - they certainly don't help provide technical assistance or capacity support to help achieve innovation. And while everyone wants to fund innovative approaches, foundations too often look for innovations from grantees or outside sources without creating a culture of innovation within their own walls. The expectations for innovation are so high that most people naturally feel intimidated, not realizing that innovation is not the exclusive domain of those who are "smarter" or "more creative."
One of the key things I realized after reading The Innovation Formula by Alan Weiss and Michel Robert, is that every funder can incorporate innovation into their day-to-day work - from improving grantmaking processes (maybe you can make decisions in three steps instead of 30) to reimagining the role of philanthropy in solving a problem (maybe you fund professional development instead of programs) to constructing a groundbreaking new community partnership (perhaps you can align multiple sectors for whole-child health and wellness).
Foundations that will succeed in innovation are those that intentionally engage in a process to develop innovations as a regular part of doing business. This means that:
- Top leaders - especially the CEO - serve as champions for innovation;
- The foundation believes that everyone can become innovative;
- The foundation is willing to regularly identify, test, pilot, and implement innovative ideas;
- The foundation adheres to prudent risk tolerance.
Innovation can be an investment in something new or significantly improved. When you nurture an environment where everyone has the capacity to be an innovator, the capacity of what you can accomplish is significantly improved too.
Discover additional practices that can transform your foundation's strategy in my article