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Paper Prototyping: A Guide For Surfacing Innovative Ideas More Quickly

Caroline Kronley — Former Managing Director
Kippy Joseph — Former Associate Director

People around the table

Almost every new consumer product that hits the shelf starts with a prototype.

Manufacturers use prototypes to determine if the product will function properly, appeal to the customers they’re targeting, and attract the investors needed for scale. Prototypes help designers study, discuss, and refine their product until they’ve produced a tested version that’s ready for the marketplace.

In innovation for development, we haven’t always had the luxury of testing prototypes. Social innovations aren’t physical products that are crafted in an inventor’s studio. Instead, they’re ideas for transforming systems that require collaboration, iteration, and risk-taking. For resource-constrained NGOs, developing new ideas requires diverting effort from more tried-and-true approaches to impact.

Because of this, innovations emerge slowly or aren’t noticed and nurtured in the ways that they should.

At The Rockefeller Foundation, we’ve begun thinking about how to accelerate the innovation process and double down on more promising bets. Can we as a funder enable better prototyping of new ways of tackling problems? And can we better support organizations in taking risks on ideas that could be transformative for both them and their constituents?

To test this hypothesis, we’ve been trying a new grantmaking approach, what we call “paper prototyping.” Under this approach, we’ve recently convened two separate cohorts of organizations working on similar problems. We gave them grants to explore their individual early-stage ideas for achieving impact in their domain and support to come together as peer advisors and collaborators.

Each organization brought a diverse perspective: Some specialized in direct service delivery, others expertise in policy change, and a handful brought a background in market-based solutions. We asked them to participate in an intensive process of ideation, iteration, and testing to develop paper prototypes to address a deep-seated social or environmental problem. They were paired up with a diverse team of Rockefeller program staff and external partners—subject matter experts, innovation experts, and strategists.

In short: rather than wait for ideas to emerge in the field, we convened an A-team to iterate and test ideas from the get-go.

The task wasn’t easy. We asked these grantees to do a lot in a short amount of time—develop, test, and iterate a concept in six months. But the results have been extremely encouraging. By incorporating diverse perspectives and fostering collaboration and testing from the start, we’ve found that paper prototyping can:

  • Help organizations accelerate their thinking. Often NGOs simply need the time and structure to create based on what they know. This approach provides organizations the incremental funding to explore new ideas and then gather the best, most diverse minds in a room together to stress-test each other’s thinking.
  • Build relationships that can transform systems. Sustainable change requires multi-sectoral collaboration. Our approach to paper prototyping bakes in that collaboration from the start and lays groundwork for long-standing relationships between organizations that may otherwise have never crossed paths.
  • Surface better, testable ideas—more quickly. Ideas don’t arrive fully baked. By rapidly producing, testing and iterating on ideas in a collaborative environment, paper prototyping produces stronger ideas with a better likelihood of creating lasting change.

We’ve found that paper prototyping gives organizations the space to pursue their hunches, collaborate, and take risks; build the relationships to create change; and the confidence that their solutions are stress-tested before investing further in on-the-ground piloting. Funders are left with a better understanding of where and how they can have impact, because they’re surfacing the best ideas from the actors who are closest to the problems.

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