The word “innovation” is ubiquitous in philanthropy. It’s a concept that few foundations have defined, yet many are eager to fund. No surprise, then, that foundations often request “innovative ideas” from their grantees but fail to accomplish the same thing internally.

When a funder doesn’t create a clear definition of innovation or understanding of how to build its own innovation muscle, the implied assumption is that innovation “just happens.” This creates several problems.

To be sure, innovation has many nuances and interpretations in the business community. The same is true for philanthropy. What’s important is that foundations understand what they mean by the word. I define innovation as “applied creativity.” “Innovation” can look like:

    • Adopting a new approach to problem-solving (such as design thinking)
    • Making a change in practice (such as a grantmaker that shifts its strategy from responsive grantmaking to issue-focused advocacy)
    • Expanding an evidence-based program (such as Nurse-Family Partnership)
    • Creating a product (like an app that crowdfunds hotel nights for domestic violence victims in need of shelter)

Innovation almost always begins as a change in thought before it becomes a change in action. The field of health funding is a prime example of this; whereas health funding 20 years ago was almost entirely focused on clinical medicine, the field has evolved over the past two decades to include holistic health and wellness and now devotes much of its attention to considering the social determinants of health — root causes that interweave elements of housing, employment, income, education, justice, and equity. That shift didn’t happen overnight but was the product of much thought, research and reflection.

Read the full article about innovation in philanthropy by Kris Putnam-Walkerly at Putnam Consulting Group.