Foundations urged to collaborate, adapt

Todd Cohen

When Gabriel Kasper worked in the early 2000s as a program officer at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, he says, he “kind of knew” the work that other foundations were doing in his own field of interest.

But even if he had spent an entire day talking by phone to his counterparts at those foundations, he says, he still would not have known much more about their work.

“More often than not, when it’s that hard to know what anyone else is doing, it’s much easier to put on the blinders and say, ‘I’m going to do what I’m going to do, and keep my fingers crossed it doesn’t get in the way, or syncs up, with what someone else is doing,'” says Kasper, a senior consultant at the Monitor Institute, a consulting firm, think-tank and incubator that focuses on innovation to address social and environmental problems.

While the turmoil in today’s world is driving continual change, Kasper says, foundations tend to be slow, if not resistant, to change.

In a recent report, Monitor looked at strategies foundations can use to overcome their built-in reluctance to change so they can address urgent problems.

Foundations for the past decade or so have done a good job trying to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their individual organizations, says the report, What’s Next for Philanthropy: Acting Bigger and Adapting Better in a Networked World.

In today’s marketplace, Kasper says, “that is necessary but not sufficient.”

Today, he says, foundations also should be “acting bigger and adapting better.”

Hurdles to change

While philanthropy “does a lot of good in the world, it’s not fulfilling its potential,” Kasper says. “As the world around philanthropy has changed, philanthropy hasn’t really kept pace.”

Representing a disincentive to change, he says, are permanent endowments that “insulate” foundations and compound the natural human reluctance to change and the natural tendency to keep doing things the same way.

So the anxiety about survival, typically a powerful incentive to change, does not apply to foundations.

“In philanthropy, there’s very little fear,” Kasper says. “The only fears are of regulation.”

So change in the foundation world likely will depend on “aspiration,” he says.

And with the pace of change accelerating because of global competitive forces and rapid advances in information technology, he says, foundations need to adapt.

In fact, he says, the financial crisis offers an opportunity “to start doing the things that philanthropy has long needed to do but that are hard to make happen when everything is going along as normal.”

And while the current economic crisis is not likely spur the social sector to become the kind of driver of social change that government and corporations became, respectively, in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, Kasper says, it represents an “opportunity to begin to look at and very intentionally think about the way we in this sector do our work.”

Strategies for change

Change, Monitor says in its report, will require new data and tools, new incentives and new leadership.

A natural tendency for foundations is to want their own independence and control, Kasper says.

That tendency, compounded by a lack of incentives to learn or change, as well as inertia and a lack of time, can result in insularity and an aversion to taking risks.

To help foundations be more intentional about innovation, Monitor developed a “Next practices” toolkit that provides a template and instructions for them to run a workshop to help them identify opportunities for innovation.

The toolkit, for example, aims to help foundations identify their “pain points,” or what is not working in their processes and the way they do business, as well as places where innovation might be needed, such as the opportunity to use technology to work in new ways.

The toolkit also is designed to help foundations identify examples of what’s working or changes that might make a difference.

That does not necessarily require the “new shiny thing,” Kasper says.

“In lots of cases, innovation isn’t just what’s new but it could be what’s new to you,” he says.

So a foundation might find an innovative strategy that another foundation or even another industry is using, and then brainstorm about how to adapt it to address problems it may be facing.

And the toolkit includes a “rapid-prototyping” feature designed to help foundations explore the implications of its brainstorming, looking at possible barriers to change, identifying stakeholders it should engage, and developing strategies that would “make them want to change,” Kasper says.

The overall goal of the toolkit is to figure out “what it would take to make something real,” he says.

In a pilot project that illustrates how the toolkit might work, Monitor in recent years has worked with the Rockefeller Foundation to create an online data-visualization tool that maps the strategies and grants of a dozen funders working on climate change.

Using “bubbles” to indicate a relative scale, the map shows “how much resources are going into any particular strategy,” Kasper says.

“It allows everyone to see the piece they’re holding onto, take a close look at the pieces others are holding onto, see the strategies and grants of other funders, or take a step back and look at the larger whole,” he says.

The mapping tool “is about making more coordinated behavior,” he says, and is “designed to make different people see how their work fits with others and coordinate with others and see gaps and overlaps.”

Ultimately, the idea is to be “intentional about how we do the work and think about whether there are new ways of doing it,” he says. “If we can create the tools that make it easy to change behavior, then the hope is that more people will start adapting and acting in new ways.”

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