Note: Second in my list of esteemed guest bloggers this summer is Adin Miller. Adin is Senior Director of Community Impact and Innovations at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, but his post is his personal viewpoint, not necessarily that of his employer. Here is his guest post:
Readers of the Social Velocity blog know of Nell’s clarion call for nonprofit financing not fundraising and her conviction that the current mode of nonprofit growth through fundraising is bankrupt. Today I want to examine another area I consider broken, namely the ineffective way in which philanthropy identifies and grows emerging organizations and projects – the domain of scaling innovation. I’ll focus on the Jewish federation system, in which I currently work, and then pull back out to the larger philanthropic sector.
To begin, let’s define innovation funding as the practice of funding an innovative venture – a new emerging organization or an iteration of an existing program within an established organization – that does not yet have evidence-based documentation of its approach but that points to the potential to generate significant social benefit. In my work, I also focus on the stages of funding an innovative venture goes through as it morphs into a scaled up nonprofit. Funding is generally aligned with the following stages:
- Pre-proof of concept
- Proof of concept
- Pilot stage funding
- Early stage funding
- Second stage funding, and
- Mezzanine stage funding.
By the time the organization has approached mezzanine funding, its annual budget will be growing from the $1 – 5 million level per year to the $10 – 50 million level per year.
The Jewish federation system represents one of the oldest philanthropic engines in the United States and Canada, tracing its history back to 1895. The system includes 153 Jewish Federations (local independent fundraising and grantmaking nonprofits) and over 300 Network communities (volunteer driven federations), which raise funds and distribute resources among programs serving the Jewish community. Per the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), each year the federation system raises and distributes “more than $3 billion annually for social welfare, social services and educational needs,” placing it among “the top 10 charities on the continent” in terms of grantmaking.
One would think that as units in an overarching system that the local federations would share a common agenda. And that’s true to a large extent – there is commonality of purpose (funding Jewish overnight camps, for instance), ongoing support for local Jewish organizations, and consistent funding support in Israel and other global Jewish communities. However, where the system fails to deliver is in scaling up innovative ventures.
Much of that failure in funding innovation is attributable to a confluence of factors such as limited geographic scope and funding periods. With the exception of international funding, for instance, each local federation fences its funding to the geographic area in which it operates. As such, a local federation won’t fund an emerging innovative venture unless it has a presence within the funder’s geographic area. That holds true even if the innovative venture has developed the best new approach to addressing a critical area of need because it operates on the other side of the figurative (and in some cases literal) river.
Additionally, many federations provide limited funding windows lasting between three to five years. The funding period is usually sufficient to help an innovative venture establish some basis to prove its concept. But it also forces these innovative ventures to focus on sustainability instead of continued growth, a syndrome similar to the starvation cycle experienced by more established organizations. This failure by the funders to adopt a long-term strategy to not only fund but also finance the continued growth of a successful innovative venture tends to prematurely end its ability to scale efforts and generate more impact.
The situation for the innovative venture is further exasperated if it concludes that continued growth can only be achieved through expansion to new locations. By virtue of each federation working independently, without an intentional approach to working collaboratively to scale an innovative venture, the “system” establishes unique markets. And each unique local market forces the innovative venture to reestablish its market opportunity. That involves seeking independent funding for each location, repetitive due diligence scrutiny (because, as we know, funders don’t proactively share due diligence data amongst themselves), and a faint hope that sustained funding or financing will materialize after the initial funding period ends.
In short, this is not an efficient method for scaling innovative ventures. It has generated pockets of nonprofit incubators in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and others. And any number of innovative ventures emerge each year – there’s even a handy guidebook to track some of the most promising ones. But there is no methodology or intentional effort on a national scale to support these innovative ventures at all stages of their potential development (from pre-proof of concept to mezzanine funding). In some sense, growth is based on a hope and prayer that another funder will step in and continue to fund the innovation venture as it looks to scale.
You can take my above critique and substitute the words “community foundations” for “federations” and you will see the same issues in the larger philanthropic sector. Just as the federation system does not effectively scale innovative ventures, neither do community, local family, and private foundations.
The absence of a coordinated national strategy to support the ongoing growth and potential impact of innovative ventures highlights the inherent inefficiencies of the philanthropic sector. The Social Innovation Fund was one potential hope that could address this challenge. But its focus remains centered on those ideas that have already generated evidence-based results. The newly announced White House initiative on impact investing with pooled resources of $1.5B might also point to a new opportunity, but it’s too early to tell.
So, what’s the potential solution to supporting scaled growth of innovative ventures?
One idea, which I first came across in the energy technology sector through a blog post published in 2011 by the Breakthrough Institute, would involve establishing an independent nonprofit investment bank to offer a range of financial tools (grants, loans, etc.) to help not only fund but also finance the growth of an innovative venture. If the federation system could pool 1% of its annual grantmaking budgets into this bank, that would create a $30 million annual fund. And if community foundations could do the same, we’d have an almost $50 million annual fund (this week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that community foundations’ assets now total $66 billion and giving is nearly at $5 billion per year).
A second idea would involve creating a framework by which funders would actually work together to lower the structural and financial barriers limiting the continued growth and impact of innovative ventures.
Both ideas require more thinking and a willingness by philanthropic communities to come together to explore possible solutions. The investment bank would certainly require local funders to give up some autonomy of decision-making and local application of funding in order to provide resources for greater social benefit. The second idea would require a national or prominent organization to take the lead in organizing a coalition and developing the framework.
And if all else fails, perhaps we should consider a petition to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to share its resources in more unique ways (this coming on the day the foundation received $2.1 billion from Warren Buffett).
At the end of the day, we should allow innovative ventures to succeed and fail on their own merits, instead of as result of a broken funding model.
Photo Credit: 401k2012