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Sector Agnosticism Animates Bipartisan DC Conversation

   /   Nov 18th, 2011Government, News, Washington D.C.

One of the toughest challenges we face in solving social problems is that the three sectors of society—government, business and the citizen sector—do not have strong bridges that connect one another. Just as a strong economy requires a healthy balance of free-market incentives and government regulations; an innovative society is one that harnesses the full creativity of the citizen sector, and helps social innovations grow to achieve their full potential impact. This may sound obvious to those familiar with the world of social entrepreneurship, but for many in the public and business spheres, as well as in traditional philanthropy, there remains a misconception about the ways in which change is happening today. No one sector can solve society’s tough problems by itself. Increasingly, the most important successes are coming from intelligent collaborations across these historical divides.

Which is why it was so promising that “sector agnosticism”—a willingness to think across boundaries—was the beating, bleeding heart at the center of a special meeting held earlier this week at the Library of Congress. The Inaugural Bipartisan Congressional Conference on Innovation in Giving and Philanthropy, hosted by the Alliance for Global Good, brought together corporate advocates like Jacquelline Fuller, the Director of Charitable Giving at Google Inc, political leaders like Majority Leader Eric Cantor, financial innovators like Amy Bell, the VP of Social Finance at JP Morgan, and many amazing nonprofit trailblazers like Brenda Palms-Barber, founder of Sweet Beginnings, to discuss the future of innovative giving.

Dr. Susan Raymond of Changing Our World, Inc. set the tone for the day with an overview of how philanthropy is shaping shifting at this important moment in our increasingly interconnected world. The number of foundations in the U.S., for example, has doubled in the past 20 years; adjusted for inflation, foundation grant dollars have grown 43% since 1999.  The number of registered public charities, in turn, has tripled in the last decade, but in general, the growth in the number of nonprofit organizations has exceeded the rate of growth of giving. This all adds up to a massive need for invention, partnership, and new structures for making change.

The end of the day was perhaps the most thrilling, as audience members shouted out a variety of new ideas for this difficult time. Some of my favorites were:

  • “a mulligan fund,” created to explicitly encourage learning from failure in the nonprofit sector. Grantees would have to explain why they failed in their last project, and what they learned for going at it a second time. This would help address the problem often called the “dance of deceit,” where social organizations and funders mutually agree not to discuss their mistakes, even with one another.
  • a pipeline of funding specifically created to fund in-house designers and engineers for nonprofit organizations
  • more emphasis on cultivating the philanthropic spirit in people in their twenties and thirties, such as the work being done by the One Percent Foundation
  • making sure fun is integrated into all of our philanthropic and world-changing innovations
  • and, of course, representing Dowser, I brought up the notion of more support for Solution Journalism (I was also excited to learn about a new project called Solution Search).

Some of these are still in their nascent stages, but it was encouraging to learn that the meeting will manifest a new fund for social innovation. Details to come in early-2012, so keep an eye out for that.

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