“Innovation isn’t about green bean bags and whacky idea sessions. It is a long term business development strategy“
Behind almost every good social entrepreneur you’ll find a donor. These donors come in all shapes and sizes – family members, friends, companies, CSR departments and sponsors are the most typical, increasingly followed by the crowd funders among us. While plenty of great things get funded, pretty crazy stuff does, too. Zack Danger Brown just raised $55,000 on Kickstarter to make a potato salad, for example.
More often than not, the really big bucks come from government and philanthropic foundations. The UK’s Department for International Development will hand out £10.765 billion this financial year, funding all manner of projects that help those in greatest need. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest private foundation in the world, gave $3.6 billion last year. The world has plenty of problems – big problems – and these budgets reflect that. Donors get to choose which ones they fix, too. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, currently focuses on resilient cities, digital jobs in Africa, food security, gender equality and universal health coverage, among a few others.
Donors also pay attention to what other donors do, and to what and who they fund. They love, for example, the idea of matched funding where two or more will put in an equal share of funds for a project. It spreads the risk, and gives them all comfort that they’ve not made a silly decision. If the project is good enough for someone else’s money, it’s good enough for theirs. Getting funded by one of the bigger foundations often makes it easier to get money from the others – a sort of shared due diligence, if you like.
Despite all the money and resources – and attempts to apply them to all manner of projects and initiatives – problems remain. During my “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” book talks, I draw on some of the bigger challenges and failures of international development. Yes, a lot of good work has been done, but I often wonder if we’re getting value for money. Over the past 60 years, we’ve sure spent a huge amount of it.
Plenty of things have been tried, and continue to be tried. Much of the failure is put down to the people and projects (who in turn often blame the target communities), but in many cases responsibility also needs to fall on the people who backed them. Under pressure to support ‘innovative’ (often crazy) ideas, and often under pressure to spend their large budgets, Programme Officers often resort to funding projects they shouldn’t be going anywhere near.
What we end up with is a sector full of replication, small-scale (failed) pilots, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration. This negatively impacts not only other poorly-planned initiatives, but it also complicates things for the better ones. On top of all that, it confuses the end user who is expected to make sense of all 75 mobile data collection tools that end up on offer. The policy of funding many in the hope that the odd one shines through – the so-called “let a thousand flowers bloom” scenario – belongs to an earlier era. Today, we know enough about what works and what doesn’t to be far more targeted in what is funded and supported.
Given the vast majority of projects would never get started without some form of funding, donors are the ideal position to put this right. So here’s my proposal.
All major philanthropic foundations – and, where appropriate, government development/aid agencies – sign up to a Funding Charter which encourages much greater scrutiny of the technology projects they’re considering funding. This Charter will be available online, offering considerably more transparency for projects looking for money.
In the first instance, project owners will need to answer the following questions before their grant application is considered:
- Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it?
- Does anything else exist that might solve the problem? Have you searched for existing solutions?
- Could anything that you found be adapted to solve the problem?
- Have you spoken to anyone working on the same problem? Is collaboration possible? If not, why not?
- Is your solution economically, technically and culturally appropriate?
- Have you carried out base research to understand the scale of the problem before you start?
- Will you be working with locally-based people and organisations to carry out your implementation? If not, why not?
- Are you making full use of the skills and experience of these local partners? How?
Evaluation and post-implementation questions
- How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project was a success or not?
- Do you plan to scale up or scale out that impact? If not, why not? If yes, how?
- What is your business/sustainability model?
- Are you willing to have your summary project proposal, and any future summary progress reports, posted on the Donors Charter website for the benefit of transparency and more open sharing?
Not being able to answer these questions fully and reasonably needn’t be the difference between funding or no funding – donors would be allowed wildcards – but it would serve two purposes. First, it would force implementers to consider key issues before reaching out for support, resulting in a reinforcement of best practice. And second, it will help the donors themselves by focusing their resources and dollars on projects which are better thought out and less likely to fail.
The simple adoption of this kind of Charter might do more to solve many of the niggling problems we regularly write, talk, complain and moan about in the ICT4D sector. Any takers?
A more concise version of the proposal is available on the dedicated Donors Charter website.