April 08, 2015

Let’s Get the Common Good Back in the Conversation About Innovation

Editor's note: The Chronicle asked Cynthia Gibson, a consultant to nonprofits and foundations, and Paul Light, a New York University professor to respond to a Chronicle piece about controversy over a Council on Foundations contest adapted from the Case Foundation website. Ms. Gibson’s appears below; see Mr. Light’s piece.

Sheila Herrling and Allyson Burns make important points about the role of competitions in the nonprofit world. But as one of the people who worked with the Case Foundation’s senior staff to craft Make It Your Own Awards, it’s important to remember that what motivated us to undertake this project was to advance citizen involvement in solving problems. We hoped to encourage meaningful civic engagement as giving people from all walks of life — not just experts or elites — opportunities to identify problems and develop solutions together. It was not designed as a way to introduce market forces to philanthropy.

A critical part of our strategy was to help philanthropy find ways to replace top-down, closed-door decision making with more transparent, collaborative, risk-taking, and participatory processes.

We did this by inviting Americans to pitch projects focused on solving community problems, asking people around the country to evaluate and narrow the list of applications, and then opening the final selection to public vote. Most important, we asked nonprofits to determine the criteria for grant-making decisions rather than leaving that up to foundation directors.

The idea of a national foundation making philanthropic decisions so democratically was unheard of at the time and a courageous move by the Case Foundation to test an idea that could potentially become a new approach for other grant makers to consider.

It was also a competition, however, illustrating that competitions aren’t inherently good or bad. They can have benefits (financial support, exposure, and helpful feedback about plans or projects) and drawbacks (a risk of public humiliation, cursory or ill-informed questions, and prizes that barely scratch the surface of what’s needed to launch and sustain innovative efforts).

Many factors lead to the success or failure of these kinds of contests so each should be assessed on its own merits. While the Council on Foundations plan to hold a pitch session at its annual meeting and let the audience vote on the winners was well-meaning — and a potentially more lively event than the usual conference sessions — this particular competition seemed to be designed less thoughtfully than it might have been. That’s what the event’s critics were saying: that competitions are fine, but let’s design them in ways that will result in nonprofits getting substantial and long-term benefits rather than quick-fire exposure and small sums that aren’t backed up with any kind of future commitment.

But the real issue behind this kerfuffle isn’t competitions or pitches. Just below the surface is concern that the nonprofit sector, established to be a counterpart to and check on market forces, is now at risk of being subsumed by those forces. In fact, rather than disrupting the status quo, market approaches are seen by some as having become the status quo.

As evidence, they point to a technocratic bent that’s permeated the nonprofit world’s infrastructure, with more and more people championing stringent measurement, social innovation and entrepreneurship, branding, and other market-based concepts as integral to a revamped and more effective sector. Lost in the shift has been the recognition that innovation isn’t solely the purview of the private sector. From civil rights to the rise of the Tea Party, the seeds of many national disruptions stemmed from innovative ideas and approaches of ordinary people.

What’s needed are more balanced approaches that integrate the market’s strengths with those of nonprofits in ways that achieve long-lasting social change. To date, there’s been more emphasis on what the private sector can bring to nonprofits rather than vice versa.

The council’s decision to forgo what it had originally planned and replace it with a session about the value of competitions in philanthropy is admirable. In the short-term, this discussion will help ensure that future competitions offer nonprofits the kinds of assistance they really need.

But what would make a real difference would be to give nonprofits and grant makers an opportunity to talk about topics usually discussed behind closed doors, including the stratification that threatens to divide us.

Cynthia Gibson is a consultant to nonprofits and foundations.