Harnessing Turbulence to Fuel Innovation in Philanthropy


Amid turbulent times, philanthropists must remain resilient and adaptive. The global landscape is continuously shifting, marked by economic downturns, escalating political tensions, an explosion of public access to AI technology, and assaults on democracy.

Despite these challenges, philanthropy can seize opportunities to use turbulence to our advantage, propelling us toward a more just future.

As a philanthropy advisor, I encourage my clients – ultra-wealthy donors and CEOs of grantmaking foundations and corporate giving programs – to leverage turbulence and disruption as a catalyst for innovation.

By embracing change and uncertainty, we can generate groundbreaking ideas and solutions to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.

Keep reading for three distinct forms of innovation I learned from one of my coaches, Alan Weiss, that can help funders leverage the power of innovative philanthropy for social good.

Three Forms of Innovation to Fuel Your Philanthropy:


1. Opportunistic Innovation


Opportunistic innovation involves capitalizing on emerging trends or developments to create new products, services, or solutions. This type of innovative philanthropy requires a keen eye for opportunity, allowing funders to pivot and respond to changes in the market. For example, consider the rapid expansion of e-learning platforms in response to the pandemic.

Philanthropists and foundations can support startups and nonprofits that provide innovative educational services, such as AI-powered tutoring or immersive virtual reality learning experiences.

One of my clients Blue Shield of California Foundation, along with Vodafone Foundation of America, funded the creation of an award-winning mobile app called SafeNight, which reaches out to individual donors to cover the cost of hotel rooms for domestic violence victims when local shelters are full.

The app, created by TechSoup and Aidmatrix, could not have been developed had these organizations and funders not been opportunistic. Their innovation in philanthropy was created by capitalizing on the disruptive technology of smartphones and mobile apps in the market.


2. Conformist Innovation


Conformist innovation focuses on drastically improving existing products, services, or processes. This approach is characterized by refining and enhancing current offerings, making them more efficient, cost-effective, or accessible. An example of conformist innovation is the transformation of traditional hotel rooms into a mobile platform that connects travelers with locals who rent out their homes or apartments like Airbnb.

Philanthropists, foundations, and corporate giving programs can invest in or support organizations that apply conformist innovation to address pressing social and environmental issues. For instance, backing clean energy startups that are developing more efficient solar panels or supporting nonprofits that are refining healthcare delivery systems in underserved communities.

The concept of telehealth has been around for over a century (in 1879 an article in the journal Lancet suggested using the telephone to reduce unnecessary office visits!). The use of telehealth exploded at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. So did the mental health needs of young people.

Innovative funders like the California Health Care Foundation responded by dramatically improving telehealth to increase access to high-quality care for low-income Californians, and in settings not previously utilizing this technology.

In this example of innovative philanthropy, their Innovation Fund invested in a pilot program led by San Francisco–based digital health start-up Hazel Health and a school district in California’s Central Valley to use virtual therapy to provide mental health services for young people, test and create this model, and scale the program to schools nationwide.


3. Non-Conformist Innovation


Non-conformist innovation involves creating entirely new products, services, or processes that disrupt the status quo. This type of innovation is often marked by a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and push boundaries.

Square is a non-conformist innovator that revolutionized the financial services industry by creating a small device that attaches to a smartphone or tablet, enabling businesses to accept credit card payments.

This challenged the conventional wisdom that expensive point-of-sale systems and payment processing equipment were necessary, disrupting the traditional payment processing industry and paving the way for mobile payment solutions.

Philanthropic families, foundations, and corporate funders can fund research and development initiatives that explore groundbreaking ideas to fuel innovative philanthropy, such as biodegradable plastics, lab-grown meat, or advanced AI systems.

During the early 1950s, highways in the United States only had a white stripe down the center of the road and lacked any markings on the sides. John Door, an inventor, engineer, and philanthropist, observed that drivers struggling with low visibility due to darkness or adverse weather conditions often gravitated toward the center line, resulting in disastrous head-on collisions.

Door hypothesized that painting a white line on the outer margin of the road would provide drivers with a visual reference to help them steer away from danger. He funded an experiment in Connecticut through his family foundation and discovered that accident rates dropped by 65 percent once the sides of the road were marked.

This success quickly spread, and soon all states followed suit in painting lines on the sides of their highways.

Today, these lines are a ubiquitous safety feature that originated from the efforts of innovative philanthropy and have become an indispensable aspect of public life.

Through my work as a global philanthropy advisor, I have seen firsthand the transformative power of innovative philanthropy and the profound impact it can have on individuals, families, and communities.

It is crucial for all philanthropists, grantmaking foundations, and corporate giving programs to help their beneficiaries understand and implement innovation.

By embracing the three forms of innovation – opportunistic, conformist, and non-conformist – these organizations can foster growth, impact, and positive change, even during turbulent times.

By surfing the waves of turbulence, we can together build a more innovative and resilient future. Click the link below to schedule a call with me.


Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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