I was listening to NPR’s On Point with Sacha Pfeiffer last month on innovation. Her guest was Mark Stevenson, a U.K.-based futurist who caught my attention by saying he doesn’t think of himself as a futurist, but as someone who tries to help people figure out “what questions the future is asking us” and to find answers from there. Every challenge, he argued, requires a future-literate conversation, not simply a knee-jerk reaction based on good intentions and hope.
Asked about changes ahead for so many of our industries and institutions, Stevenson referred to points made by management guru Peter Drucker. Corporate change, which is so important for growth and profitability, is made difficult by the fact that people draw salaries and are literally as well as emotionally invested in the status quo. Today more than ever, the status quo benefits fewer and fewer people. Stevenson warned that the social and civil disruptions we see globally are only the start, and that markets and governments must lead for change or they will suffer from change powered by those most affected by economic and social inequities.
Stevenson then offered examples of fresh thinking leading to real innovation. His examples resonate with a definition of “innovator” that I have always liked. Many years ago, Margaret Mahoney, then President of the Commonwealth Fund, described innovators as people fixed on good results who move the world forward by defining problems differently. They are not necessarily inventors themselves, but rather connectors between invention and society in order to transform the possible into the real.
The key is in reframing, in a new perspective, in asking questions and thinking about problems in new ways. One example shared by Stevenson was in the agricultural world. Rather than asking what farmers need to better protect crops, some agricultural innovators took note of the fact that when left alone, manicured spaces transform in relatively little time into their natural wild states. They realized that we could harness what Mother Nature already does well, for free, to maximize crops and to aid her along in specific ways to reap significant benefits.
Over the years, The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI) has had the good fortune to work with many funders and corporate leaders who have been innovators in their own right, or who have been drawn to those in the social sector who are finding new and promising solutions to critical issues. One example was a donor who wanted to increase the odds of success in college and beyond for talented inner-city youth. Rather than create a conventional scholarship program, TPI helped this donor explore challenges faced by low-income, minority students once they arrive on campus. Many of these students drop out due to peripheral expenses, the demands of work and family, situations that arise from lack of health insurance, or other difficult circumstances. The donor and TPI partnered on an innovative approach that provides flexible financial support beyond tuition, along with one-on-one mentoring and networking opportunities. The result has been a dramatic increase in the graduation rates of participating scholars. These scholars have gone on to pursue careers in law, education, medicine, social work, and other fields – and are also creating positive change in the communities in which they live and work.
To be open to new perspectives, we like to encourage funders to approach their philanthropy with a “beginner’s mind.” When one thinks like a novice, anything seems possible and the mind is open to ideas and opportunities. While I shared similar perspectives presented by surgeon, author, healthcare innovator, and philanthropist Dr. Atul Gawande at The Boston Foundation’s Centennial Event in a post back in April 2016, the recent On Point interview raised some new thoughts about the value of a “beginner’s mind” in philanthropic endeavors. If you have challenges you think might benefit from a fresh perspective, let me know, as I will share further thoughts on innovative thinking in my next post.