What’s So Wrong with Nonprofits Playing by Market Rules?

Here’s the thing about markets – they have this uncanny way of being candid, sending demand signals that companies need to pay attention and adapt to in order to thrive, if not survive.

So why is it that the nonprofit sector is uncomfortable with embracing more market-based approaches to its work? This week’s feeding frenzy of articles criticizing the Council on Foundations for its experiment to host a $40,000 pitch competition to identify new organizations and approaches to drive social change is an example of this discomfort. In fact, the frenzy was so severe, that the Council decided to cancel the pitch competition and instead host a discussion on the merits and drawbacks of new approaches to grantmaking.

One of the pillars of our work at the Case Foundation is “revolutionizing philanthropy.” We believe that the practice of mobilizing private capital for public good is in need of a major reboot. In order to keep up with the pace and scope of major social challenges, the resources and tactics going into addressing these challenges and the organizations managing those resources need to be more efficient and effective. And as a sector, we need more catalytic, collaborative and creative solutions.

That’s why we’ve tested programs like the Make It Your Own Awards, the first campaign to open up a part of the grantmaking process to an online public vote. Or the America’s Giving Challenges (in 2007 and 2009), which mobilized over 150,000 donors to give $3.8M to over 14,000 causes, most of which were small and scrappy. That’s why we created the Be Fearless campaign – because we believe that in order to create more innovation in our approaches to social change, we must all take risks, embrace and learn from failure and make big bets. And that’s why we consistently provide catalytic funding to partners that are experimenting with new approaches and hoping to find breakthrough solutions and collaborations.

We’ve long championed the potential for prize and challenge programs – including initiatives like pitch competitions – to discover breakthrough innovations. We know that sometimes the people with the most innovative solutions to big problems will be found in unlikely places – just take the wedding dress designer who played a critical role in helping to dramatically improve the design of the Ebola Protective Suit worn by health care workers treating the disease, thanks to a challenge hosted by USAID’s Global Development Lab. The U.S. government has broadly embraced the use of prizes and challenges, which kicked off with the Summit on Innovation that we co-hosted with the White House in 2010, leading to the creation of Challenge.gov, which hosts hundreds of prize and challenge competitions across 50 federal agencies. And we were proud to join some of the philanthropic sector’s leading innovators – Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Joyce Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation – in publishing a 2014 report on the ways in which incentive prizes are transforming the innovation landscape.

We love to see new practices for crowdsourcing ideas, pooling resources, disrupting old ways of doing business, testing new approaches and massively publicizing – if not competing – new programs. Why? Because, quite frankly, despite a massive amount of good accomplished with billions of nonprofit dollars, the evidence base for impact remains unsatisfying. We’re not saying that we should swing the pendulum completely toward prizes, challenges and other experimental approaches – but deploying tactics that can help us discover new ideas from unlikely places is desperately needed.

We have a saying at the Case Foundation based on an old African proverb – if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. What if, instead of trashing the Council on Foundations for trying something new, we embraced it as a fearless attempt to disrupt the status quo with the hope of finding a better way? Sure, we might each have our tweaks on how to make it better (e.g., having a panel of judges, not the audience, vote on the winner). But as a tactic, it brings a fresh market-based approach and has the potential to expose innovative people and ideas to a broad community of funders, who just might decide it’s worth pooling their resources for greater and faster impact.

We look forward to the discussion on the merits of new grantmaking approaches at the Council’s conference, but we’ll wistfully be wondering what it would be like with the pitch competition in full swing, tapping into the “wisdom of the crowd” and fully embracing of the idea of democratizing philanthropy, making it easier for anyone to participate in the efforts to solve big, hairy problems.

Want to continue the conversation? Tweet us @CaseFoundation with the hashtag #CFBlog

Welcome to Our New Website!

This post was written by Allyson Burns and Brian Sasscer on behalf of the Case Foundation:

After a few weeks of being in “stealth mode,” we’re incredibly excited today to unveil a new look and feel here at CaseFoundation.org! This is the first step in the rollout of our new “Digital Roadmap” to ensure we’re putting our best digital foot forward on all fronts.

Last year, we embarked on a full audit of the Case Foundation’s digital presence to understand how our entire web portfolio, including CaseFoundation.org, as well as our social media outlets, could serve as a more effective tool for engaging with our key constituents. The audit process involved gathering detailed feedback from our partners, friends and peers in the sector – without which this new digital roadmap would not be possible.

The newly designed CaseFoundation.org draws on some of the latest tools and technologies, and is designed to more clearly highlight our work and provide valuable resources for the sector based on what we’re learning. Our hope is that this new design will make it easier for users like you to find the information they want.

And as our CEO, Jean Case, has explained, related to the work of the new website – and this inquisitive process – is a new way we’ll talk about our work going forward. It was a high priority for us to take the learnings from our audit process and translate them into a user-friendly website design, content and strategy. Engaging a creative web design team, we set out to provide a fresh look with bold features, engaging content and imagery and an intuitive flow of information. You will now see an intuitive speaking navigation at the top of every page with easy-to-use drop-down menus to help you explore the site. There is also a new “Who We Are” section that features language explaining our philosophy, team structure and history (be sure to check out the interactive timeline at the bottom of the page). Another significant addition to the site is a new section titled, “What We Do” that introduces the three pillars that ground the work of the Foundation, including: civic engagement, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. We invite you to explore these pillars and the evolving program areas that are built upon them including Impact Investing, Be Fearless, Economic Mobility, Millennial Engagement and more.

We took design inspiration from a number of sites, including: TED Ed, Kickstarter and Apple, and embraced new features such as conversational filters, immersive images and “sticky” fixed navigation. The site is also now responsive, meaning you can easily view on your desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile device without compromising the viewer experience.

You’ll also see us continue to roll out changes across our digital platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, some of which we’ve already begun to implement. For example, you may have noticed a shift away from sweepstakes and contests as a way to interact with our communities and attract new members. Rather, we are now focused on publishing more targeted posts related to relevant social sector content tailored for each platform in an effort to garner more meaningful engagement. While we still actively review analytics related to our social media outreach, engagement is the name of the game and trumps impressions and likes.

We also heard loud and clear from the digital audit that you wanted to hear more from the individuals on our awesome team – so you’ll see us making a more concerted effort to lift up the diverse viewpoints and experiences of our team members across digital platforms. This also translates into our email strategy. Feedback from users indicated that email is a vehicle through which they want to receive updates, news and information from the Foundation. So we’ve made it easier to sign up for email and have started implementing a detailed segmentation process to make sure the information becomes more targeted and specific to reader’s needs and wants. (If you’re not signed up for our email list already, please make sure to do so in the form provided at the bottom of this page!)

That’s it for now, but the new website is a work in progress to be sure. Check back with us regularly to see what other changes and improvements we have made. And after you’ve taken a spin within the new pages, we invite you to share any feedback, as that will help us continue to improve the site.

Let us know what you think on Twitter using the hashtag #NewCFsite!