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Experimentation: A Shortcut to Innovation

Leading organizations are placing bets on action over rhetoric.

“Van Jones [a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former special advisor to President Obama] once told me that what’s needed is for funders to stop giving grants and instead to fund experiments,” says Linda Wood, senior director for leadership and grantmaking at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. (See “The Re-Emerging Art of Funding Innovation.”)

We often think of experimentation as testing a single theory to gain a data point. But we are seeing an exciting trend of using experimentation to source innovative ideas, diverse connections, and game-changing solutions. This is happening across sectors and industries; in local, regional, and global arenas; via in-person and digital interactions; and with participants ranging from novices to PhDs.

Experimentation may seem unpredictable or risky given the serious issues that social organizations are tackling, but the world is changing faster than we can create impact using known methods. By experimenting to source new ideas, organizations can take advantage of multiple opportunities for learning, including crowdsourcing information, testing a process or tool, and empowering the community to contribute to the solution. While there is no single replicable model for experimentation, there are templates organizations can adopt to ensure the highest possible gains.

Put aside expertise

Given the depth of experience, degree of practice, and unique perspective that many of us have, it can be easy to have a “been there, done that” attitude. To intentionally listen in a new way to a new community, the Packard Foundation collaborated with Context Partners to design and host a portfolio of experiments to source new ideas. This resulted in a Starter Kit for Experimentation.

One experiment, The Squawkathon (a hackathon for designing better ways to track marine bird bycatch) proved fruitful. Even with their intense passion and deep understanding of the issue, Packard’s team approached every aspect of this experiment through a lens of inquiry rather than expertise. The result was a crowdsourced event with more than 30 participants, including marine biologists, technology developers, and design thinkers. Blurring the lines between experts and laymen, teachers and students, enabled attendees to explore ideas and recombine solutions from a broad range of experiences and industries. This generated sector-changing ideas not previously surfaced through traditional grantmaking. Most importantly, it connected Packard’s team to a pool of new potential grantees for future innovation.

Let data determine direction

The more often organizations experiment, the faster they gain data to inform the next potential breakthrough. One of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ maxims, “In God we trust; everyone else, bring data,” underscores its belief in harnessing the power of data for greater impact.

In 2012, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the Mayors Challenge, inviting US cities to share innovative, replicable solutions to major urban challenges. The five winning solutions presented exciting opportunities for innovation in local government. In addition, the 300 submitted applications created an invaluable data set. Bloomberg Philanthropies leveraged this data to produce a publication highlighting shifts taking place in US cities, to inform the launch of a European Mayors Challenge and to assess future funding opportunities.

Collaborate with your competition

When Darren Walker became president of the Ford Foundation, he offered the following assessment: “No single philanthropy has the resources to solve the problems that its mission requires it to work on. So we need to genuinely seek partners who are like-minded and have similar areas of programming.”

Looking beyond the foundation sector, the Lilly Clinical Open Innovation team has developed an application programming interface (API) that facilitates the use of data from clinicaltrials.gov, a website plagued by dense jargon. Lilly has collaborated with its competitors, Novartis and Pfizer, to enrich the API by including target health profiles for clinicaltrials.gov trial listings. Target profiles will be open and available to any organization that wants to use them to support its health-focused experiments. “We’re excited to explore how we can assist in supporting innovation in the healthcare ecosystem,” said Jerry Matczak, community manager for the Lilly Clinical Open Innovation team. If Lilly, Novartis, or Pfizer had been territorial about their information, this innovative tool wouldn't exist in this form.

Experimentation can seem like a gamble, but given the urgency of issues and pace of change in today’s world, it actually presents the surest route to innovation. Just as higher-risk investment portfolios carry a possibility of higher returns, there is an opportunity for foundations with clear visions to put their money where their values are. Organizations like the Packard Foundation recognize there are plenty of tools to facilitate the process and measure results. In recent remarks on the current state of philanthropy, Dr. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, articulated the charge to act: “I believe philanthropy has found its identity once again—as a convener, a risk-taker, a piloter of good ideas, and a partner in bringing those ideas to scale.”

All that is required is an appetite for measured risk and learning, desire for speed, and a willingness to collaborate. For more tools and inspiration to inject experimentation into your work, download the experimentation toolkit from Context Partners and the Packard Foundation.

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