By Tifany R. Boyles, Red Philanthropy
I recently was at a party surrounded by women-led business owners. I mentioned that I was a philanthropic advisor and this intimate group of successful women responded with comments such as, “ugh, nonprofits are so frustrating,” and “philanthropy is nice” with a kind of verbal pat on the head.
This endemic perspective seems to classify the social sector as either cute or irrelevant. I love meeting people like this because I love blowing their minds on what makes the social sector so phenomenal.
The nonprofit arena is known for many things, most of which include giving, fundraising, volunteering, and responding to a social gap in society. These brands are enough to classify the social sector as valuable. And, while these core activities are brilliant, the social sector is much more expansive.
During my time as a graduate student at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, I was exposed to the many other ways in which the social sector contributes to humanity and societal evolution. One area that is so often overlooked is the culture of invention that uniquely occurs here and the innovations born out of this risk-taking ecosystem.
The ecosystem that promotes innovation
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” as the proverb goes. We certainly occupy a space that is filled with both need and invention:
- Need forces us to be inventive and the nonprofit sector is based on responding to need
- Being beholden first, to a mission, rather than consumers or constituents, frees up leaders to be bold and try new ideas as a means to address social issues
- Designated funding for experimentation is common
- “Innovation” seems to be the sexiest American word these days and many philanthropists are attracted to promoting this hallmark, futuristic culture through their giving. Therefore, nonprofits are encouraged to be innovative to attract this subset of donor dollars.
Overall, the nonprofit ecosystem is a Petri dish for adaptive thinking that fosters new ideas and entrepreneurial leadership. For example, in 1969, John D. Rockefeller III suggested private foundations could act as risk-takers and undertake “an adventurous approach to funding unpopular social causes,” which seeded the idea of venture philanthropy.
Venture capitalists often defer to philanthropic capital when social entrepreneurs are getting started. Philanthropists are often more willing than traditional investors to fund risk and experimental solutions before proof of concept to advance new ideas for social change.
Innovations born out of nonprofit systems
Some amazing innovations were born out of a nonprofit. Religious institutions, higher education, and hospitals are cornerstones of the nonprofit sector and fuel explorative strategies for social impact. Consider these two examples of innovation.
Nuns created the American private education system – Today, Americans benefit from a hybrid of educational offerings including both public and private school options. Private schooling ranges from special needs education, gifted education, remote education, charter schools, language immersion schools, religious schools, boarding schools, and so on. However, these options were not always available.
Before America built a public-school system during the Reconstruction Era, education was limited to privileged children with private tutors or boarding schools in other countries. Catholic nuns wanted to bring education to more children. As a result, they created America’s first privatized school system.
This model was quickly adapted for other opportunities and became a prolific method of offering education in America. By the 1950s, this system of education became a dominant player in American society. Today, private education represents only 10 percent of students in the K-12 system. However, its influence has been expansive in shaping our education system today.
Heart transplant science was invented by two surgeons from Stanford University – The world’s first human-to-human heart transplant technique was born out of a nonprofit hospital from a higher education university by American surgeons Norman Shumway and Richard Lower. Once developed, it was performed by South African cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard. Universities are famous for driving innovative research and fueling new ideas.
When people think of nonprofits, so often they think of more grassroots organizations rather than these large-scale institutions. Innovations that have derived from these more stereotypical nonprofits are also vast. Consider these two examples.
Agricultural technologies are actively being reinvented to serve the poor – iDE (formally known as international development enterprises) focuses on creating tools for small-scale farmers living in impoverished communities to access the farming tools and techniques relevant to their needs.
A series of inventions and adaptations have created technology such as the axial flow pumps, the power tiller-operated seeder, and the individual treble pump, among others. These advancements have benefited more than 58,000 farmers and resulted in nearly 27,000 hectares of land tended.
Clean cookstoves revolutionized cooking safety for the poor and climate change for us all – Three decades ago, nonprofit organization Aprovecho Research Center invented the emissions equipment needed to develop clean-burning and efficient cookstoves. Since then, it has lent its expertise in the design and testing of biomass cookstoves to companies, governments, and entrepreneurs.
Aprovecho’s leading-edge research and clean cookstove products continue to prevent unnecessary deaths via house fires and breathing in toxic fumes as well as reduce toxic emissions into the climate from black carbon.
Let’s say your passion isn’t memorizing inventions born out of nonprofits and the social sector. And, let’s also recognize that most of these inventions were highly collaborative. Nonetheless, if philanthropy didn’t exist, neither would this progress and so many other advancements in society and our humanity.
Next time someone dismisses the power and scope of philanthropy, try my reply and say, “Actually, philanthropy is pretty incredible. It creates not only a culture of generosity and care for one another, it also enables creative thinking, societal problem solving, and innovation. Let me tell you about it…”
Tifany Boyles, M.A.’15, owns a philanthropic consulting company, Red Philanthropy. She has previously worked with corporate foundations, such as Western Union Foundation, multilateral NGOs, such as UNICEF, and social enterprises such as Street Business School, to foster an environment in which women and children can achieve equality and overcome injustice. Tifany holds a bachelor’s degree from Pepperdine University and a master’s degree in philanthropic studies, concentrating on impact investing for gender equity, from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI. She is also certified in “Women’s International Health and Human Rights” through Stanford’s Center on Social Innovation and in “Women in Innovation” from Yale’s School of Management.