Three Guiding Principles for Funding and Innovating in the Social Sector

Almost a year ago I wrote about how open innovation can help create a new operating system for the social sector. The piece focuses on learnings from the BridgeBuilder Challenge, a multi-challenge partnership between OpenIDEO – IDEO’s open innovation practice – and GHR Foundation to find solutions for global challenges at the intersection of peace, prosperity, and the planet. A year later, the first of three $1M BridgeBuilder Challenges is complete and the second is currently underway. In this time, we’ve learned a tremendous amount and are applying these lessons to continuously improve the program. To help guide ourselves and others in the social sector, we’ve extracted three overarching principles to guide our work and partnerships with funders in the social sector for years to come. 

Principle #1: Broad questions help map landscapes of opportunity. Intentionally moving between divergent and convergent thinking is a standard part of IDEO’s design thinking process. We use this approach to help innovation programs to quickly explore possibility and to develop focus. For our BridgeBuilder Challenges, we’ve used an intentionally broad framing to reach a diverse audience, stretch our understanding of the work being done, and learn from communities around the world about the needs they’re facing.

Our first Challenge asked, How might we address urgent global challenges at the intersections of peace, prosperity, and planet in radically new ways? The response was inspiring and humbling. It reflected the diversity of world-changing efforts already underway and offered a powerful reminder that there’s never been so much energy and creativity dedicated to improving life on this planet. As noted by GHR Foundation's senior program office Mark Guy, "We were blown away by the number and caliber of ideas and people looking to be a part of this dialogue and movement through our work with OpenIDEO.”

Over 28,000 people from 185 countries visited the Challenge. We received more than 650 proposals from fledgling projects to large, established NGOs, such as tree-planting drones in Myanmar, peer mentoring to empower parents in Chicago, and rehabilitation of incarcerated youth for reintegration in Cameroon. The challenge allowed us to reach new kinds of actors and see how the work they do is interconnected and intersectional. We gathered data to help GHR Foundation see the breadth of “Bridge-Building” work, both mapping what was proposed and considering what was missing.

Some findings from our data include:

  • 38% of proposals bridged all three of our focus areas (Peace, Prosperity, and Planet), while only 6% bridged both Planet and Peace.
  • Top 3 focus topics: Environment, Entrepreneurship, and Education
  • Top geographic focus: global, Latin America, US, and East Africa
  • 56% of participants were non-profits, and 16% were companies

With this in mind, we are now considering the question: How might we help other funders engage with proposals from Challenge participants that fit their interests? While we proactively connect funders individually to relevant participants whenever possible, we aim to match funders to innovators at scale by maintaining our online database of proposals completely open. After Challenges conclude, OpenIDEO Alliances allow us to maintain networks of innovators and funders and provide ongoing support to strengthen innovation ecosystems. Man standing under a clock, light bulb, and dollar sign.

Principle #2: Openness enables collaboration. Innovating in silos slows learning and hinders collaboration. We’ve seen time after time that introducing transparency accelerates progress towards addressing societal problems. A well-designed open innovation process can enable knowledge-sharing and collaboration among a global cohort of social innovators.

We believe a more open process to support and finance social endeavors impacts everyone. Though funding was only available for a handful of teams during our first BridgeBuilder Challenge, the open community mentality was a driving force for valuing collaboration over competition. For example, people not only iterated on their own concepts, but also commented on other proposals through the platform creating a number of collaborations. Women’s Earth Alliance Founder, Melinda Kramer, shared her appreciation for an open approach. She noted, “Oftentimes we feel like we are writing grant proposals in the dark, but in this case, we were able to see the landscape of the others working on aligned and mutually supportive projects. We also improved on our idea (and the articulation of our idea) 10-fold by moving through the human-centered design process.”

The benefits of openness was widely felt as 84% of survey respondents said they had a meaningful conversation during the Challenge with another participant who shared similar interests. Given this insight and knowledge, we’re now considering the following question: If our Challenges inspire collaboration between grantseekers, how might we better enable collaboration amongst funders as well? This is a question we’ve been exploring a great deal recently through designing and managing funder networks, using insights from open innovation to help foundations come together, map their interests and explore areas for collaboration. 

Principle  #3: We can design for empathy and iteration at scale. The central tenet of design thinking is to understand human needs and iterate based on their feedback. This leads to stronger solutions that resonate with the communities they’re serving. We structured the BridgeBuilder Challenge to help participants adopt a human-centered approach, as well as to learn from and accelerate those already leaning into these principles. Participants were asked to frame their proposal in partnership with those they’re seeking to impact, bringing a deeply empathetic mindset to the work.

From the 650+ proposals, a group of 100 were selected to advance to the next phase of the process where they’d receive feedback from experts and beneficiaries to refine their ideas. This iteration process lasted for six weeks, and 91% of participants reported that they improved their ideas. Many participants found this helpful including Laura James of Field Ready who said, "It was great to go through the phases, thinking about different kinds of improvement and 'challenge' to our idea each time. Having the process, support, and deadlines was helpful to us in accelerating our work and focusing our thinking. The expert feedback was some of the best we have received—and we sought out experts of our own during the challenge period too—just the right balance of informed and external views!” 

We believe bringing that the process of iterating with feedback into the open benefits everyone. For GHR Foundation, seeing how participants responded to feedback helped them learn about the teams behind the proposals. Even for those whose ideas didn’t make it through to the end, there was something to take away from the process. Josh Tewksbury, Colorado Global Hub Direct at Future Earth, shared that “Although the three ideas I submitted to the Challenge weren’t selected, I am confident the process will help me find other funding.” 

Acknowledging how the Challenge experience can improve both innovations themselves, as well as the process for innovators, we’re now considering the question: How might we better measure the impact of helping participants innovate? True to our ethos of iteration, we’re working to create more value for all those who participate in our Challenges by offering resources to support their skill development, networking opportunities, valuable feedback and, at times, dedicated mentorship. Some concrete steps we’ve taken are to provide updated design thinking toolkits, 7 translated versions of our Challenge Brief, and a team of distributed community guides to support all participants with more depth and intention.

Helping the social sector become more open and innovative will take constant learning, iteration, and discussion. We know the sector betters through questioning, and welcome comments shared insight always. If you’re interested in submitting an idea to the BridgeBuilder Challenge, you can do so here until June 4, 2018. If you’re interested to learn more about OpenIDEO and the open innovation process, don’t hesitate to get in contact here.

About the author(s)

Managing Director