Fostering Innovation and Enterprise: Thoughts on supporting the sector from #giveandtech

by Amy Sample Ward on September 16, 2011

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I’m quite excited to participate in The Power of Information: New Technologies for Philanthropy and Development Conference in London, UK, put on by Indigo Trust, Institute for Philanthropy and the Omidyar Network. I have the pleasure to participate on a panel with some smart, experienced folks: Chris Locke (GSMA), Jon Gosier (HiveColab), and Bosun Tijani (Co-creation hub). The other panelists spoke about the projects they’ve been a part of, things they’ve developed and things they’ve helped produce. To compliment, I shared some of the core beliefs I’ve developed in my experiences working in technology, innovation and community engagement. My five points are summed up below – I’d love to hear what additional truths you’ve learned and witnessed in this field!

Lessons and Opportunities for Supporting Technology Innovation

 In the innovation marketplace, adoption is the only currency that matters.

As the speed at which new ideas can step out on the stage continues to increase, it is less about finding a great idea and pitching it for support. Ultimately, it’s the adoption by the community that matters in the long-run, and now can be proven even in the short-term. The advantage of the technology sector is that even if it is rudimentary or preliminary functionality, you can expose a new idea/tool/app/platform to the community from the very beginning, getting their feedback and support. This can help prove the value and need, as well as begin the iteration and development with the community’s engagement from the beginning.

Look to fund projects, not products.

The infrastructure that supports new innovations and social enterprise requires capacity, just like any other organization. Likewise, what we have as far as a product on Day 1, could and should look different on Day 15 and Day 50 and Day 500. Funding projects instead of just a specific product ensures that organizations or teams can fail quickly and softly while working towards something better, can invest in research and evaluation, and engage the community not just market to them.

Recognize the role of technology across all our work.

Technology is a catalyst for data, analysis, scalability, effectiveness and efficiency. It is not something confined to an “IT department” any more as everyone (if we are looking at a nonprofit, for example, staff use the website, database, email marketing, etc.) can be harnessing technology to improve their work and impact. As such, we need to invest in raising the level of technology education and understanding across the social impact space so that the organizational catalysts, those in a nonprofit that are not in the IT department but would be the ones engaging with the community or program, have enough technological familiarity that they can recognize the value and opportunity for adopting a new application or tool and implementing it in their organization. After all, the potential to scale one entrepreneur or organization’s new application is hugely tied to the numbers of organizations and communities that can adopt it and spread it.

Focus on why, not if, something works.

To work on scale and replication of any tool, we have to understand why it is working now, not just whether it is or isn’t. Once we know why it is working, we can know if it is even able to scale or the success is tied too closely to the specific segment already engaged. We can also look at the why to understand the ecosystem for new or complimentary tools. Supporting analysis and evaluation may not sound as exciting to your board as funding a new tool, but it can be at least as important!

Let the community drive the innovations you want to support.

As it turns out, the community knows far more about itself than you do (unless you are actually part of that community, of course!). So, look for opportunities to be a catalyst, supporting an environment for the community to help itself. As a recent MIT study showed, communities were better able to align aid with those that needed it than objective measures were to assigning that same support, and they felt far better about it. The same has been true in my experience with supporting new technologies.

Debunking Myths About Funding Tech Innovation

After the panel remarks, there was some great discussion with questions from participants. One question was raised, and I want to share my response as it is something I’ve been asked by foundations and philanthropists before: what are the biggest mistakes funders can make when supporting tech innovation? I have three key myths to highlight:

“Money is Gold”

For many projects, money is obviously a key ingredient to staying afloat and going forward. But so often, supports (whether financial supporters or other sponsors/partners) overlook the power their endorsement carries. Sometimes what is really needed is a recommendation, or an introduction, or a stamp of approval publicly. When projects are small, involve people that haven’t yet “created something” to get their name out there, a few thousand dollars is important, but so is your support.

“History is Enough”

Just because some person created Facebook, doesn’t mean their next idea will be the “next Facebook.” Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But what I’m really getting at is that the it shouldn’t matter whether someone or some team has created the coolest, shiniest, sexiest application in the past, but whether they can show their new application addresses a real need (and isn’t just another random “solution”) and has community interest. We are all learning from the success and failure of others in this sector, so a first try or a 50th try shouldn’t be the deciding factor.

“New is Better”

If there are funds to give out, they may as well be for something new, right? Not always. Sometimes the funds could actually go much further towards scale and impact by supporting a project that already has a tool but can use your support to fund staff and time to create documentation or clean up code so that it can be released to the open source community, or (as said above) quality investigation can go into the why of it’s success. Looking at deeper or wider can be more exciting than just new.

I’d love to hear your ideas, experiences and additions to these remarks though and especially any examples you have!

Image credit: Flickr opensourceway