September 21, 2012

White House Hosts Innovation Forum for Philanthropists

More than 150 leaders in philanthropy and finance gathered at the White House on Thursday for a private meeting on “innovation in philanthropy” that featured Jean Case, chief executive of the Case Foundation, as a keynote speaker.

Ms. Case appeared with U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios to discuss “impact investing” and strategies for getting more donors to channel their money into for-profit businesses that are advancing social missions. Ms. Case said more people would participate in impact investing if foundations could unite to devise uniform standards for tracking and measuring success.

“People with unbelievable track records of investing are sitting on the sidelines of impact investments,” Ms. Case said in an interview.

She announced at the meeting that Sonal Shah, the first director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, was joining the Case Foundation as a senior fellow to spur an increase in impact investments.

Ms. Case said one of the most innovative approaches discussed at the forum was a “crowd-funding” idea presented by Megan Kashner, founder of Benevolent. The Chicago nonprofit provides a platform for people to post their individual needs—school supplies for their children, for example—then verifies the request is legitimate and identifies a nonprofit that can help.

“That was really interesting,” said Vikki Spruill, chief executive of the Council on Foundations.

The Cleveland Foundation was also featured during the event for a job project called the Evergreen Cooperatives, which helps locally owned businesses get started in economically struggling neighborhoods. (See this profile of the Cleveland Foundation's work from The Chronicle's archive.)

Both Ms. Case and Ms. Spruill said the event comes at a time when philanthropic organizations need to escalate innovation efforts.

“A lot of conversation was about catalyzing innovation at this critical moment in time when needs so outweigh what any of us individually can solve,” Ms. Spruill said. “How can government and philanthropy work together to take risks, to identify solutions, to catalyze change, to pilot innovative ideas?”

Administration officials who attended the forum were Valerie B. Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, and Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

Other philanthropic leaders at the event included Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation; Emmett Carson, chief executive of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; and Paul Shoemaker, executive connector at Social Venture Partners Seattle.

Ms. Spruill and Ms. Case said they hope collaboration among organizations and with government will improve following the forum. It was unclear what the White House planned to do with the information gathered at the forum. The meeting was closed to the press, and the Office of Social Innovation did not provide a public statement on the forum.

“I think there was a real sense of collaboration that we can do this, to find innovative ways to move forward as a sector,” Ms. Case said.