What Does Innovation Mean?


light-bulb-2722916_1920The word “innovation” is ubiquitous in philanthropy. It’s a concept that few foundations have defined, yet many are eager to fund. No surprise, then, that foundations often request “innovative ideas” from their grantees but fail to accomplish the same thing internally.

When a funder doesn’t create a clear definition of innovation or understanding of how to build its own innovation muscle, the implied assumption is that innovation “just happens.” This creates several problems:

  • Because few funders have defined what they mean by innovation, they have difficulty communicating their expectation to grantseekers.
  • The onus of innovation is almost always on the grantees and rarely on funders themselves.
  • Funders give little to no thought about how they expect grantees to be innovative. Most efforts to fund nonprofit organizational capacity, for instance, don’t include building capacity specifically for innovation. (Again, there’s that assumption that innovation will occur organically.)

To be sure, innovation has many nuances and interpretations in the business community. The same is true for philanthropy. What’s important is that foundations understand what they mean by the word. I define innovation as “applied creativity.” “Innovation” can look like:

  • Adopting a new approach to problem-solving (such as design thinking)
  • Making a change in practice (such as a grantmaker that shifts its strategy from responsive grantmaking to issue-focused advocacy)
  • Expanding an evidence-based program (such as Nurse-Family Partnership)
  • Creating a product (like an app that crowdfunds hotel nights for domestic violence victims in need of shelter)

Innovation almost always begins as a change in thought before it becomes a change in action. The field of health funding is a prime example of this; whereas health funding 20 years ago was almost entirely focused on clinical medicine, the field has evolved over the past two decades to include holistic health and wellness and now devotes much of its attention to considering the social determinants of health — root causes that interweave elements of housing, employment, income, education, justice, and equity. That shift didn’t happen overnight, but was the product of much thought, research and reflection.

While the ways in which foundations define “innovation” can vary, the most important thing to remember is that each foundation should define innovation in a clear, consistent way so that grantees, partners, and staff understand what, exactly, they are pursuing and how it applies to their work. Better yet, bring your grantees and partners together to define innovation collectively. That way you can innovate as one!

For additional insight on how to foster innovation within your organization, download “Fostering Innovation in Philanthropy.”

© 2017 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 years. A member of the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame and named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers. Author of the award-winning book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.” For more ways to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group.


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