Borrowing is the New Innovation

Though not officially on the agenda, there was one message popping up in many sessions and speeches at the 26th European Foundation Centre (EFC) annual conference in Milan: “Borrowing is the new innovation!”

Companies do it, NGOs do it and foundations should do it, too: borrowing, copying, “stealing” good ideas. China’s wealthiest business man – and by the way most active philanthropist – Jack Ma, founder and CEO of Alibaba, did it when he copied the idea of eBay for the Chinese market and called it Taobao. United Way of America did it when they transferred the concept of community impact from US community foundations to their chapters. And the German Fritz Henkel Foundation is doing it by supporting Teach First, which has adapted the concept of Teach for America to the German school system.

A good idea should spread and reach as many people as possible. Sharing of best practice – that’s not by accident the best concept to successfully apply for EU funds or to convince social investors to put their money in your project. It’s actually what most foundations are looking for when they make their grant decisions.

Foundations have good arguments why they prefer unique innovations. If these innovative ideas are successful, they can have an immense leverage effect and ultimately change the face of the earth. Since only one in a thousand innovations is that successful, the financial and political independence of foundations is crucial.

But today it’s not good ideas that are missing – we know how we could easily, within a few years, tackle climate change, end hunger and stop HIV – but the fair distribution, adaptation and implementation of these ideas. The internet produces worldwide excellent ideas – every minute. There is no thought which has not been thought already – somewhere, sometime.

I like borrowing – especially books. I borrow them from the library, but as well from friends, colleagues or family. This way I do not only save money and reduce the use of resources (wood) but also learn which books are most recommendable, whether a story works or not. And by the way, I meet and chat with my friends when I fetch the book!

The same is true for borrowing innovations from other foundations. It saves resources, enables learning and benchmarking, makes sure that a good innovation can really spread, and fosters cooperation and networking among foundations. Beneficiaries don’t see any difference whether an innovation is really unique or “only” borrowed and adapted. When the “unique innovation” of telemedicine was borrowed by the Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation to deliver health counselling in remote African and Indian villages, people there did not care that the idea was first developed for a 24-hour medical service at Boston airport in 1967.

There is no innovative idea which has not been thought already. But there are thousands of good innovations which have not reached all people on earth yet. Making this happen could be a new vision for foundations in the 21st century.

This post originally appeared on Alliance Magazine's website.

[Editors Note: The director of GrantCraft, Jen Bokoff, attended the AGA this year and participated in a session about this topic. The team that shared some fun sessions in the past tackled this topic through an Aristotelian interpretation of a play called A Midsummer Sheep's Dream written by Wooly-Yarn Sheepshear. Photo upon request. The topic resonated for us at GrantCraft because we hope that the 'borrowing' you can do of other foundations' ideas through the case studies, blogs, guide examples, videos, and more that we share can be integrated in your work as an innovation. We've held this mentality since our inception, and are pleased to see that foundations are embracing it, too.]

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Owner and Managing Director
Christian Gahrmann Philanthropy Consulting