Foundations: Look at the cutting edge to maximize your impact

Summary: In this post I’ll argue that foundations should focus on bringing their expertise, contacts and resources to bear at the cutting edge where they can prevent and mitigate issues, rather than react to them. To do that, many foundations need to attune themselves to earlier stages of interventions.

For a few years now, I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to work with more foundations and other orgs who work with policy and civil society.

And coming into that space from the outside — previously I had worked mostly with industry and done independent research — there are a few things that are different. But one in particular stood out to me:

A lot of foundations, for all their competence and impact, focus on problems that have already emerged as (for lack of a better term) “visible to the mainstream”. By which I mean, the issues have taken on such a scope and negative impact that they’re present in mainstream media coverage. They’ve become household names. Things like “fake news”, “election meddling on social media” and their like. They are reactive rather than shaping.

Now why is that a problem? Surely, solving the big, pressing problems can’t be bad?

And no, it’s not. Not per se at least. However, I’d argue that they shouldn’t have been allowed to grow into these big, now-intractable problems to begin with.

Foundations have tremendous shaping power. With their mix of expertise, resources and contacts, they can develop massive impact. But it’s important to bring their influence to bear where it has most leverage. To quell and avoid problems rather than react to them. To minimize those issues before they bloom.

One of the key approaches I see towards doing this is for foundations to attune themselves to earlier stage interventions. This requires better sensing and sense-making; Taking more risks; Supporting early-stage organizations and leaders rather than boosting those who already have broad visibility and support. Often, independent researchers and activists discover issues earlier, sometimes they set up an NGO or other organization. Without support — be it financial, operational, or communications — these innovators cannot realize their full potentials. Supporting them can lead to disproportionate impact.

How to do that will differ from org to org: Some foundations provide funding, others expertise, others yet training and upskilling. Some commission research, some advocate policies with governments and policy makers. Whatever it is they do, there’s a good chance it would have more oomph if it was applied upstream. Earlier in the process, and earlier in the organization’s life cycle.

So here’s my call to action for foundations, for their directors and program leads:

  • Think about where you could have most impact: Not just within your current framework but if you zoom out to consider the bigger picture.
  • Consider how you can build a sensing and sense-making system that brings you the relevant signals early on and helps you interpret them in a way that allows you to act on them with the tools at your disposal. In other words, how can you speed up the feedback loops within and around your organization?
  • If you don’t have it already, consider setting up a program (even a pilot!) to learn to engage with organizations and leaders at the cutting edge.

Some foundations do this already, and do it well. (Mozilla, where I was a fellow, comes to mind; Shuttleworth, Luminate and Open Societies have solid reputations, too.)

But many if not most established organizations in this space engage where it’s easy to engage for them: With other large, well-known organizations. Those are known entities, engagement is low risk.

However, this leaves a lot of potential untapped.

Organizations and leaders at the cutting edge, in the liminal spaces, often are finely attuned to issues that have massive impact, but may not be established in terms of framing, terminology, organizational affiliations. Here, support goes a long way.

For example, activists and researchers had been tracking the emergence of “fake news” for years before that hit main stream — and at that point the battle was essentially lost. In Artificial Intelligence, we’ve seen activists and researchers analyze and explore algorithmic bias for years, and only slowly is that gaining any traction now. (Too late? Just in time? We’ll know in a few years.)

My hope is that you and your peers in the funding space will take this as an opportunity to look around and think about opportunities you might be able to realize, about ways to support the next generation of researchers and activists. This way, you might be able to make a disproportionate contribution not just to solving big problems, but even to avoid them in the first place.

And of course I’m happy to help. Let’s chat.

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