Innovation in Philanthropy is not a Hack-a-thon

Sam McAfee in Medium: “…Antiquated funding models and lack of a rapid data-driven evaluation process aren’t the only issues though. Most of the big ideas in the technology-for-social-impact space are focused either on incremental improvements to existing service models, maybe leveraging online services or mobile applications to improve cost-efficiency marginally. Or they solve only a very narrow niche problem for a small audience, often applying a technology that was already in development, and just happened to find a solution in the field.

Innovation Requires Disruption

When you look at innovation in the commercial world, like the Ubers and AirBnBs of the world, what you see is a clear and substantive break from previous modes of thinking about transportation and accommodation. And it’s not the technology itself that is all that impressive. There is nothing ground-breaking technically under the hood of either of those products that wasn’t already lying around for a decade. What makes them different is that they created business models that stepped completely out of the existing taxi and hotel verticals, and simply used technology to leverage existing frustrations with those antiquated models and harness latent demands, to produce a new, vibrant commercial ecosystem.

Now, let’s imagine the same framework in the social sector, where there are equivalent long-standing traditional modes of providing resources. To find new ways of meeting human needs that disrupt those models requires both safe-to-fail experimentation and rapid feedback and iteration in the field, with clear success criteria. Such rapid development can only be accomplished by a sharp, nimble and multifaceted team of thinkers and doers who are passionate about the problem, yes, but also empowered and enabled to break a few institutional eggs on the way to the creative omelet.

Agile and Lean are Proven Methods

It turns out that there are proven working models for cultivating and fostering this kind of innovative thinking and experimentation. As I mentioned above, agile and lean are probably the single greatest contribution to the world by the tech sector, far more impactful than any particular technology produced by it. Small, cross-functional teams working on tight, iterative timeframes, using an iterative data-informed methodology, can create new and disruptive solutions to big, difficult problems. They are able to do this precisely because they are unhindered by the hulking bureaucratic structures of the old guard. This is precisely why so many Fortune 500 companies are experimenting with innovation and R&D laboratories. Because they know their existing staff, structures, and processes cannot produce innovation within those constraints. Only the small, nimble teams can do it, and they can only do it if they are kept separate from, protected from even, the traditional production systems of the previous product cycle.

Yet big philanthropy still have barely experimented with this model, only trying it in a few isolated instances. Here at Neo, for example, we are working on a project for teachers funded by a forward-thinking foundation. What our client is trying to disrupt is no less than the entire US education system, and with goals and measurements developed by teachers for teachers, not by Silicon Valley hotshots who have no clue how to fix education.

Small, cross-functional teams working on tight, iterative timeframes, using an iterative data-informed methodology, can create new and disruptive solutions to big, difficult problems.

To start with, the project was funded in iterations of six-weeks at a time, each with a distinct and measurable goal. We built a small cross-functional team to tackle some of the tougher issues faced by teachers trying to raise the level of excellence in their classrooms. The team was empowered to talk directly to teachers, and incorporate their feedback into new versions of the project, released on almost a daily basis. We have iterated the design more than sixteen times in less then four months, and it’s starting to really take shape.

We have no idea whether this particular project will be successful in the long run. But what we do know is that the client and their funder have had the courage to step out of the traditional project funding models and apply agile and lean thinking to a very tough problem. And we’re proud to be invited along for the ride.

The vast majority of the social sector is still trying to tackle social problems with program and funding models that were pioneered early in the last century. Agile and lean methods hold the key to finally breaking the mold of the old, traditional model of resourcing social change initiatives. The philanthropic community should be interested in the agile and lean methods produced by the technology sector, not the money produced by it, and start reorganizing project teams and resource allocation strategies and timelines in line this proven innovation model.

Only then we will be in a position to really innovate for social change.”