A lot of institutional funding goes to established partners and towards well-understood problems. And that’s good! But it also leaves some critical blank spots that are underfunded — especially where emerging technologies are concerned, some of the issues simply haven’t had the time to unfold their maximum (negative or positive) impact. It’s important for funders to really understand what the next decade or two of societal issues might look like and how they might be able to make a meaningful contribution.
The best time to help shape those areas is earlier in the process, because that’s where funds have maximum leverage and impact — rather than later, when the framing will often be much more defensive and issues are so much more evolved and embedded to be much harder to fight.
So with that in mind, I see a number of things funders can do to have disproportionate impact in those newer issue areas. Let’s call them our new investment hypotheses:
- Invest in next generation organizations and leaders. Identify independent researchers, activists and subject matter experts who are working on issues that are still freshly identified, maybe even barely outlined or understood. Often these are younger folks, but they don’t have to be. They may have already formed an organization to scale up their work, or they may not quite be there. Help them get started by throwing your support behind them and their newly founded organizations.
- Look at the cutting edge. New issues often arise out of new contexts. So you’re most likely to find these researchers on the edges and intersections of fields, where things are new and maybe a bit blurry. Don’t let it deter you — chances are they know there’s something going on that’s worth exploring. Sometimes it all starts with a hunch, some data intuition, or an informed guess. Also, often these things start out in subcultures of all sorts and then migrate from there to the center. Again, don’t let that deter you.
- Take investment risks by investing early. Large funding pots are usually only accessible through cumbersome application processes, and hence only to large, well-established organizations. However, to nip emerging issues in the bud, it’s important to empower those researchers with their fingers on the pulse. That means investing early (see point 1 above), which means taking some investment risks. Funding smaller but more projects is a good way to go. Then de-risk the overall portfolio by keeping the amount per investment comparatively low, and plan for a larger than usual of failure by your usual investment measurements. A few will fail anyhow, and a few might not look like successes but still pay societal dividends later on. That’s ok! As long as you plan with it.
- Offer more support than just funding. Concretely, new organizations often lack not just funds but also operational experience, fundraising and media experience, among others. Chances are, your organization can offer some of that. Be creative and talk openly with the fundees about their needs: Maybe you can have a COO type person on staff that supports them either remotely, or even could be embedded for a few months in the early days to get the ball rolling. Maybe you can offer fundraising training or you have a smoothly running media outreach machinery you can make available to the funded org. Also, before their affiliation with your organization ends, maybe there are ways to help them find follow-up funding in another funding org that caters better to those more established organization they might have matured to.
- Cut down on bureaucrazy. Hands-down the complaint I hear most often is that applications and reporting are both prohibitively time consuming for smaller organizations. Keep the application process as lightweight as humanly possible. Where more intense application processes are necessary, only apply them to the absolute finalists, and keep the first round or two as totally lightweight as you can. Do not ask for letters of reference until the last step — nobody wants to burn their professional contacts by repeatedly asking for recommendations. Similarly, reporting can be hard, or it can be easy. Keep it easy. If possible, coordinate with other funders to standardize around the fundees’ needs rather than the funders’ needs. Keep in mind the power dynamics and how they warp the relationship between funder and fundee.
- Be open-ended and creative in the way you fund or support. The more open-ended inquire you enable, the better the results are likely to be. Also, what works best for each fundee? A lump sum payment? Travel support? A monthly stipend? Access to research data you might be able to procure? How is the person or org able to accept any funding at all? Personally, I’m a big believer in the fellowship model for example, but that’s easier to apply to a real person than a legal entity. Be creative, and have a good tax advisor and lawyer at the ready to make things happen.