In 2011, our board and staff asked, “What are the greatest problems facing humanity?” This simple question set us on a path of exploring complex social and environmental issues, our beliefs about the root causes, and ultimately, an articulation of the role we want to play in solving some of the world’s most complex social problems. We committed to unleashing the power of change agents to create transformational social change. With a recognition of where we could best contribute, we decided to focus specifically on unlocking the power of change agents inside the foundations and nonprofits that have amassed tremendous assets—financial, human, and otherwise—that could be used to solve problems. Today, we partner with these change agents, helping them pivot, and in some cases, dramatically turn, the ships they sail to head more directly toward solving social problems at the magnitude they exist.
Our commitment to partnering with foundations and nonprofits remains, as does our commitment to continually grasp what it takes to solve social problems and to elevate the conversations that so desperately need to be elevated. While this commitment is unwavering, the world around us continues, and will continue, to evolve. I was reminded of this at the recent SOCAP conference, which attracted nearly 3,000 social entrepreneurs and investors from around the globe to focus on the intersection of mission and money and how these two drivers are pushing us toward a new and better world. While none of this will be surprising, it’s important to step back and reflect upon how the world is evolving from time to time.
In our specific context of solving social problems, I might describe the new world that we see emerging as one where:
- Bottom-up approaches and unlikely partnerships will play an increasingly powerful role in driving social change.
- The foundation for solving problems will not be institutions but rather networks.
- Everything will be more open, transparent.
- Solutions to problems will be hyper-local but complex and interconnected.
- Racial equity and inclusion will be at the forefront of solving any problem.
- Lived experience will be viewed as equally valuable as expertise and intellect in solving problems.
- Leadership will be redefined, with major concessions and dispersions of power creating shared leadership structures.
- Mechanisms for funding social change will continue to emerge, unlocking new, large sums of capital from players such as major corporations and governments.
An entrepreneur that I met at the conference shared a story with me that in some ways illustrates this new world. This entrepreneur’s most recent endeavor is an 18-month-old company that is working to revolutionize the home care industry by dramatically lowering costs of delivery, increasing client satisfaction, and increasing wages for home care workers. He has created an open, technology-powered platform for identifying, interviewing, and selecting a home care worker. He took personal risk to develop his idea and then sought a way to further test, develop, and scale it. Ultimately, he developed a partnership with a large insurance company. Today, the company is not only funding a pilot but also is an active partner that is providing timely information to this entrepreneur and his team to help them identify people who might need home care. This entrepreneur described the partnership process with this behemoth as challenging, with endless legal agreements and negotiations. He said he almost walked away several times, but always came back to the table seeking common ground. Now that the work has started, he sees the tremendous value of this unlikely partnership between an entrepreneur and a major corporation, and its ability to help him deliver outsized impact to elderly and home care workers globally.
When I reflect on this new reality, I am proud of our work and that of the foundations and nonprofits with whom we work. At the same time, I also feel it’s critical for all of us trying to create social change to ask ourselves what else we can be doing. I think we need to be honest with ourselves about answers to several big questions:
- How will the role of nonprofits and foundations continue to evolve and what will these organizations look like when this new world has fully taken shape?
- What are the challenges—and what discomfort do they generate—to fully embracing this new emerging reality?
- How can we tap into our tenacity, creativity, and imagination to overcome these challenges?
I am excited about exploring these questions for ourselves and urge nonprofit and foundation leaders to do the same. We also invite you to share your thoughts and ideas with us as we all continue on this journey.