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Philanthropy Innovation Trends from the 2019 Skoll World Forum

By Carmen Dowell May 17, 2019

A panel discussion at Skoll World Forum 2019. Photo courtesy of the Skoll Foundation.

I recently had the opportunity to be amongst great minds from the social impact sector in Oxford, England for the 2019 Skoll World Forum. This year’s theme, Accelerating Possibility, was present in mainstage presentations, intimate sessions, peer-led discussions, and in the missions of the Skoll Foundation Awardees for Social Entrepreneurship, which included Crisis Text Line, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, mPhara, mPedigree, and Thorn.

What’s next in accelerating possibility?

Philanthropy lacks innovation, and it is hindering social entrepreneurs and nonprofits from fulfilling their full potential. In a time when the need for change feels urgent and trust in nonprofit organizations hovers at 57%, many organizations are citing the constraints of the traditional funder/recipient relationship as a barrier to affecting greater change, faster.

In the current model, power and perceived expertise are aligned with money versus direct experience and service delivery. Funding is generally project-based, with many strings attached, as Dan Pallotta points out. This model doesn’t include general operating costs, like technology, capital expenses, and non-programmatic staff, which are critical for the organization’s well-being, but viewed as “overhead” or “not impactful” to funders, despite leading philanthropic organizations urging donors NOT to use overhead as a metric. This budgetary conundrum creates fiscal imbalance, threatens organizational stability, and inhibits impact. Conditional funding also indicates a lack of trust in nonprofits and their ability to manage their own budget, which is a problem unique to the social sector.

“Accelerating Possibility” theme at Skoll World Forum 2019. Photo courtesy of the Skoll Foundation.

In a similar vein, risk tolerance and communication is a hot topic in social impact. The culture of experimentation and innovation that is so valued in business, particularly in tech, could be better fostered in the social impact space by encouraging and funding calculated risks. But few funders calibrate and share their risk appetite or have a methodology for managing risk across their portfolio of grantees. And, nonprofits, often due to power dynamics and fear of a ‘no’ funding decision, are not forthcoming enough in sharing where risks lie. This can lead to mismatches and relationship breakdowns between philanthropists and non-profits who are trying to innovate.

Ella GudwinAt Skoll World Forum 2019, Ella Gudwin, President of VisionSpring, called for both funders and implementers to proactively discuss risk and tolerance levels, identify potential problems up front, and engage as real partners in managing risks. In short, to promote innovation, risk assessments and proactive management must become part of the normal grant process.

In multi-sector partnerships, scale is not simple. When an initiative is successful in a specific geography, philanthropy often attempts to scale the program through direct replication without advice or leadership from area experts. If the project falls short in the new location, blame is often placed on the nonprofit or the entire concept is deemed a failure without acknowledgement of the cultural nuances that occur in different communities.

Rodney Foxworth JrRodney Foxworth Jr., Executive Director of BALLE, equates this power dynamic to “turning nonprofits into the legs versus the head,” and calls for expertise to be placed on experience versus money.

Amidst a lot of criticism, there are funders that are breaking the mold and receiving great praise from the social sector. Co-Impact not only offers an open call for funding, but they also provide access to their network of other funders, investors, and non-monetary resources. Contrast that to invite-only funding rounds that tend to exclude smaller or less brand-name organizations. Open Road Alliance offers fast, flexible capital via grants and investments focused keeping projects that are mid-implementation on track. Along with funding, they also provide tools, templates, and best practices on risk management, which allow nonprofits to better plan for obstacles that may occur and helps funders fulfill their perception of being risk-takers.

Finally, technology is a major force for good. As in other sectors, technology opens up possibilities that were unimaginable in the past, but the social sector is uniquely positioned to leverage technology to solve problems and improve the lives of people around the world.

One example is The BOMA Project, a customer that was also in attendance at the Skoll World Forum this year, is a prime example of an organization using technology to power their mission of ending poverty for African women through a graduation model. They created Performance Insights on the Salesforce platform to gather real-time information from their program participants and field staff to make data-driven decisions. The BOMA Project has partnered with Mercy Corps to expand their work throughout the arid lands of Africa, which has been a case study of successful partnership between varying sizes of nonprofits for maximum impact.

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About the Author
Carmen DowellCarmen Dowell partners with nonprofits to leverage technology to bring about greater change, through her work at She is also passionate about responsible execution of corporate philanthropy with an emphasis on how the public and private sectors can partner for maximum impact. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.