5 lessons for funding innovation for social change

A child gets vaccinated against polio at Darbhanga railway station in northern India. Photo by: Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

As CEO of the Global Fund for Women, I work at a unique intersection — I am both a donor and a fundraiser who depends on donors. This has given me powerful insight into the subject of financing social innovation.

I am convinced that in general the structures and practices of philanthropy are actually threatening and inhibiting social change, rather than propelling it — and I want to explain why.

There are three big ways in which mainstream philanthropy holds back innovation and they are all based on fear. Let me address each of them in turn:

1. Fear of failure

As a grant-seeker and fundraiser I am only too familiar with this one. Donors want results quickly and failure costs you — donors often leave. But this stance is antithetical to everything we know about innovation.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon has said publicly that innovation is “all about the long term.” It took Amazon designers at least four tries before they arrived at a viable, working Kindle, for example. The company stayed committed to the “concept” of a digital reader, even through repeated failures.  

“The key thing,” Bezos said, “is to be willing to wait five, seven, 10 years.”

For those of us working in the social impact sectors, we would really love to know: are there any funders or foundations out there willing to fund an organization through innovation cycles lasting for five, seven or 10 years?

We know that there are key conditions for innovation. You have to be willing to fail and you have to be willing to commit long term. Yet in the work of organizations dedicated to sustainable social change, there are powerful forces that are pushing in exactly the opposite direction. The result is that we exist in a risk-averse sector, and we cannot make great leaps forward.

2. Fear of investing big

When it comes to major gains in social sector innovation, this is perhaps the biggest fear of all.

I am sure I am not alone in asking why we haven’t had more major global health innovations and breakthroughs? Many well-funded development pilot projects are positive but they are not innovative. They do not invest in local organizing. In my own space of women’s rights, why have we not had more traction, for example, in eradicating harmful practices such as child marriage, or mobilizing international consensus for safe and legal abortion? And why are so many women and girls still trafficked, abused, paid less than men, and still dying in childbirth from preventable causes?

Of course these are huge challenges. But the answer also lies in the resources and investments we are able to deploy for innovation on these problems. Currently, they are truly meager and not targeted to invest in the local communities, except as objects of development rather than changemakers.

Donors need to grasp that major global health and human rights innovations must be fuelled by investments at an exponentially larger scale than they have considered before. And likewise social sector innovators need to be ready to think big, and beyond the constraints imposed by the lack of funding that has kept innovations small.

3. Fear of investing in movements

Social change innovation aims to achieve enduring and positive social change — the kind of change that gives people freedom and opportunity, and that allows them to live with dignity and without discrimination. The kind of change that pulls down and dismantles social barriers. It is about lasting steps towards a better, healthy world. It is about sustaining such change and scaling it to the maximum. And it often has to be grounded in a local context, driven by movements with bold leadership, and sustained by mass adoption.

And that is where innovation in this sector is unique: Social change comes from organized groups and from movements — not from an individual or corporation. This organizing and collective civil society engagement is the fuel that social sector innovation needs in order to be successful.

However, that is where funders often don’t look, instead often driven by the idea of investing in an individual with an idea. While there are countless leaders and activists in women’s health and rights around the world, they know that in order to be innovative and to drive lasting change in their communities, they must have the resources, the safe spaces, and the opportunities to collaborate with others — those in their regions, those working on similar issues in other parts of the world, and those who have critical skills like policy advocacy that they need to learn from. They need and want to exchange ideas, learn from other strategies, missteps, and creative thinking, and work together to achieve sustainable change.

If we continue to focus on funding individual leaders, innovation will be held back. We need to focus intensely on funding movements, providing resources for collaboration, and investing in collective champions of change. This is where social innovation resides.

There are five key lessons for funding innovation for social change:

1. Make the invisible visible. Discover unheard and tough causes and shine a spotlight on them. Social innovation comes from funding and advancing causes that sometimes are unspoken in society because they speak of a change that is seen as taboo. For example, funding emerging groups or issues advancing a LGBT health and rights movement in Russia or Uganda.

2. Invest in leaders with new ideas and be ready to invest in them as a first donor. Angel investors for commercial products and startup companies raise no eyebrows funding new entrepreneurs with bold ideas. We must take the same position when funding new leaders driving social change within their communities.

3. Empower communities to design their own innovations and change. Social sector innovation relies on strong groups owning and designing their own change, versus imposing ideas from elsewhere. Trust local communities to determine and design their own solutions.

4. Give core funding that allows new and sustaining grantees the flexibility to innovate. Donors’ obsession with project support is one of the biggest social sector barriers to genuine innovation.

5. Recognize that connection and collaboration is key. Social change cannot be achieved by lone corporations, organizations or individual leaders. It’s about major grass-roots change driven by movements — and collaboration is key.

It’s time to let go of our fears. It’s time to think big. It’s time to imagine how the world will shift if we can truly unleash the potential of social sector innovation — and start investing in real social change.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

About the author