Seven years ago, The Rockefeller Foundation was beginning to notice a disturbing trend: while the private sector was getting more intentional and strategic about embedding innovation into its operations, the social sector—including philanthropy—was shying away from its roots of experimentation and risk. Innovation is an equally major driving force in both global economic growth and development. But while commercial companies were seeing innovation as critical to their bottom line—innovate or die—actors focused on development for the poorest or most vulnerable weren’t as able to see the direct line from investment in innovation to impact.
“Innovation is a major driving force in both global economic growth and development.“
And so in 2007, The Rockefeller Foundation created a funding initiative to catalyse greater experimentation with and adoption of models to generate innovations—products, services, and behaviors—that could accelerate the pace and impact of development efforts. We set about testing several models that had proven viable in the private sector, including crowdsourcing, user-led innovation, and user-centered design thinking. For example, our funding enabled Ashoka to create its Changemakers platform and it helped the thinkers behind ‘Positive Deviance’ to spread their approach more widely. The aim was to make the process of innovating intentional and create a balance of projects that focus on incremental improvements and those that have the potential for transformational social change.
Through the evaluation of this initiative we found that there was considerable spread of these innovation methods—an increase in crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding platforms, and an upsurge in applying design thinking for social benefit. But a question started to nag: Who in development would actually take up these methods? We found that many of the organization’s best positioned to facilitate large-scale progress in development did not have the capacity to rapidly adapt and innovate on existing models. Meanwhile, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are experienced at service delivery, program oversight, and project management might not have a culture of trial and error. Rather, they are incentivised to achieve efficiency and outputs, and the practice of innovation requires different incentives.
Therefore, in order to test the benefits of innovation at scale, we had to think differently about capacity development, accountability and metrics for innovation in development. A key part of that is enabling experienced change agents to find productive ways to test or use innovation tools to help poor or vulnerable people. That’s why The Rockefeller Foundation is thrilled to partner with Nesta on the DIY Toolkit. With this new resource, NGO staff members, social entrepreneurs, and systems entrepreneurs in government will all be able to find something of value based on a particular social challenge or question at any given time.
Of course, innovation shouldn’t be privileged over activity that creates the most significant or widespread impact already, so each organisation will have different innovation needs to complement existing practice. The toolkit was designed to be accessible in this way, matching innovation resources with practical needs.
The increasing availability of tools such as DIY will ensure social sector organisations and networks will have the knowledge and capacity to address existing problems more effectively and create solutions to problems yet unknown. That’s the power of innovation—and by doing what the social sector does best—take risks, invest in good ideas, and then bring to those ideas to scale we can make better on our own bottom line: improvements in people’s lives worldwide.
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