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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Identifying Innovation

I want to return to an issue that sparked some healthy debate a few weeks ago but didn't go far enough in my opinion.

When Michele Obama first announced the Office of Social Innovation, bloggers like Allison Fine posed some really important questions about what is meant by innovation and how to ensure that the government doesn't just reward the largest and most tested programs in lieu of smaller, sometimes newer, and even untested efforts at innovation. I'd like to pose this same question to the philanthropic sector.

How does innovation get funded and are we ok with the way it currently works?

Everybody knows that these are tough times for nonprofits and even tougher times for new nonprofits, IssueLab among them. We frequently hear from foundations that they are only supporting their existing grantees or that they aren't currently accepting proposals from organizations they don't already know. (A recent online discussion about grantwriting at Charity Channel only underscored the fact that we are hardly alone in this experience.) It's not that I don't understand the pressures foundations are under but if they aren't going to fund newcomers for the next two years how exactly will innovation get funded? And what sorts of innovative projects will simply disappear because they don't have the necessary funds to continue their work?

The difficulty in even introducing new ideas to potential funders reflects what I think are two conflicting values at work here. Foundations (and the government) want to support innovation but at the same time they place enormous value on legitimacy. We see this everyday in the work that we do at IssueLab. One of our core missions is to build visibility for the work of smaller nonprofits. There is no shortage of great research coming from organizations that maybe produce one or two reports a year. But these reports don't get the kind of search engine rankings, graphic treatment, traffic, or audience that are too often confused with legitimate research.

Anyone who has ever read anything about job training programs knows the critical role that legitimacy plays in the vicious cycle of poverty. If you don't look the part you don't get the job and if you don't get the job you will never have the resources to look the part. The second nasty thing about legitimacy is of course the question of access. Organizations and individuals who lack legitimacy also lack access. And in the case of funding innovation, they simply lack access to funding opportunities and to exposure for their ideas. At IssueLab we spend a great deal of time actively searching for research from smaller organizations. It's key to the work we do and it's why our collection can include research from a small after-school media project alongside research from the MacArthur Foundation. What will foundations and the Office of Social Innovation do to identify innovative projects?

What are the equivalent measures in the sector for judging the legitimacy of organizations? Other funders, name recognition, buzz, scale, earned income revenue, the ability to measure results and impact? How many innovative startup projects and organizations can claim all these measures? And will they have access to either the Office of Social Innovation or to ever scarcer foundation funding?

If as a sector we don't answer these questions, I am afraid we won't even know what we're missing!



Gabriela Fitz is the Co-Director of IssueLab, a publishing forum for nonprofit research. She and her team blog about third sector research on IssueLab's blog "FootNotes"

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