Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

Defining the Problem to Find the Solution

“Given one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution.” ~ Albert Einstein

When Judith Rodin took over as president of The Rockefeller Foundation in 2005, she had a vision to re-imagine how the Foundation understood and intervened in the pressing challenges that confronted a 21st-century world. This transformation would require the Foundation to re-think its entire strategy model, from the issues it focused on, to the process of finding, testing, and funding solutions.

To do so, under the care of managing director Claudia Juech, who joined in 2007, the Foundation developed a highly strategic, analytical search process appropriately, and fondly, referred to as “Search.” In 2012–13, Juech’s strategic research team led 11 topic searches, which involved coordinating internal staff, consultants, and nearly 200 outside experts.

But the process is not as important as its outputs, and whether or not the Foundation decided to deploy funding into a particular space, the research yielded insights that could benefit the entire social impact field. And that’s exactly what you’ll find in the pages to follow and the additional resources offered online at

In a conversation with Insights, Juech talks of how searches are framed, why the process is unique, and the team’s guiding motto.

Every search is framed around an identified set of “problem spaces.” How does The Rockefeller Foundation define a problem space?

CJ: Albert Einstein, a Rockefeller Foundation grantee, said “given one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution.”

This approach is deeply embedded into our process: Before we can solve a problem, we need to know exactly what the problem is, and we should put a good amount of thinking and resources into understanding it. And because today’s problems are so complex, we know they can’t be solved by being broken down into specific components.

“Before we can solve a problem, we need to know exactly what the problem is, and we should put a good amount of thinking and resources into understanding it.

And so, “problem space” is just a fancy phrase for the framework through which we study a particular challenge, which includes a number of interlinking and underlying issues that must be addressed in order to find a solution. For example, if our central problem is food waste and spoilage, we must also think about farmers’ limited access to finance and reliable buyers for their crops—those are part of the problem space.

We identify problem spaces based on a wide range of inputs, using broad, sweeping horizon-scanning activities, alongside secondary research, expert interviews, and the work Rockefeller has done to date. Through this process, we often find connections and inter-relations among several trends that surface across problem spaces.

How do you assess the potential for innovation in a particular problem space?

CJ: There is very little research that has focused on how to measure innovation potential in a sector with regard to a problem space, so we are really entering new territory here. We have adopted approaches that assess innovation potential at a national level or at an organizational level, but will support further research in the future to refine our frameworks. For now, we are looking at the enabling environment—is there evidence of cross-pollination, e.g., are ideas being shared or replicated across actors, sectors, or geographies? What’s the innovation capacity? Are there active change-makers around or organizations that are capable of testing or scaling innovations? And what’s the institutional environment? Are there legal, policy, or business structures in place that promote or hinder innovation in this area?

How does this process differ from or improve upon what was done before?

CJ: For years, philanthropy has dedicated an enormous amount of resources to evaluating the impact of specific grants after the fact. What we’re trying to do with Search is to make sure the same rigor and critical thought is applied to our strategies from the outset. We also need to be innovative in where we go for information so that we are getting the freshest information—to make sure we are getting the thing that is emerging in the moment and that may lead to significant progress.

What are some other ways in which the Foundation’s process is unique?

CJ: From my experience, one of the most important distinctions is that we don’t start out with a pre-determined point of view or a dominant idea of an answer to a problem. In our process, we investigate an issue and truly test it. Then we come back, and more times than not, we find there’s not the opportunity for us there to achieve impact as major as there may be with another issue that is being reviewed at the same time.

Obviously, the Foundation cannot commit funding to every problem area you research. What kind of criteria does The Rockefeller Foundation consider when you choose where to focus your interventions?

CJ: Ultimately, the Foundation tries to determine whether there is potential for us to have significant impact at scale on a problem that is critical for poor or vulnerable populations or the ecosystems that they depend on. So it is a combination of three different criteria: We want to make sure that we work on problems integral to the lives of poor populations; we want to understand how the specific engagement and investment by The Rockefeller Foundation would make a significant difference; and we are trying to get a sense of whether the context is conducive to transformative change, i.e., is there innovative activity or momentum in regulation or private sector activity that could be catalyzed in order to achieve significant impact.

So while some options don’t move forward, it doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile or pressing—it simply means it isn’t the right area in which the Foundation should intervene at this time. But the process is valuable in other ways—in many instances, the findings have contributed to ongoing work or even informed future searches. And we have a robust body of research that we can share widely to help other foundations or other actors who care about social impact to make decisions about their own strategies, or perhaps to illuminate an area they hadn’t considered funding before.

What insight or insights surprised you most from the first rounds of searches?

CJ: The future trajectory of many of the problem spaces that we investigated truly requires a call to action, especially as some of these don’t yet receive the level of attention they deserve. For example, unhealthy food markets and the health implications of different diets will be severe, particularly in Africa.

Many professions have aspirational mottos that are supposed to guide them in their work. The famous one for physicians, for example, is “First, do no harm.” What would be the motto you would hang over your office door?

CJ: Well, the physician motto would be a good one, but I think that for the work we are engaged in it would be “Give a clear-eyed view.” We want to provide decision-making intelligence that is as informed and as objective as possible so that the most good can come from a range of funding sources.

Leave a comment