Philanthropy as an Agent of Disruptive Change

Apr 28, 2007, 4:05 AM, Posted by Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

As I write this post, I'm about to travel to the Council on Foundations (COF) annual meeting in Seattle. This year, RWJF is helping to lead an exploration of the role of philanthropy in improving public health. This is one of the four big societal challenges posed to participants; other tracks focus on poverty, disaster preparedness and response, and the environment.  None of these challenges exists in isolation - issues of access, equity, education and empowerment infuse them all. Without question, we'll need bold visions and innovative solutions to secure a stronger, safer, healthier future across these dimensions.

It is in that spirit of forward-thinking and bold vision that I welcome COF attendees to Pioneering Ideas - many thanks to COF for featuring us in your list of foundation blogs on conference computers!  Pioneering Ideas was launched in 2006 by the Pioneer Portfolio, the grantmaking area within RWJF charged with scouting innovative ideas that may drive breakthrough improvements in the future of health and health care.  Pioneer looks to support unconventional, often higher-risk projects that go beyond incremental improvements to seek transformative change.  You'll come across several in browsing the blog - posts highlight projects that are redesigning the personal health records of the future, outlining new policy approaches to combat antibiotic resistance, and applying video games to improving health, to name a few.

Included under that umbrella of innovation is room to test new models of doing philanthropy.  For instance, you'll read above that we're launching the second in a series of online, open-source idea competitions with Ashoka's Changemakers initiative. "Disruptive Innovations in Health and Health Care: Solutions People Want," kicks off May 2.

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen coined the term "disruptive innovations" to describe a level of change big and bold enough to transform business, markets, populations - even entire societies. Recently he published an article applying these concepts to social change. It's not an abstract concept.  As a doctor, I witnessed first-hand how the home glucose monitor changed the lives of tens of thousands of diabetics. It wasn't that long ago when patients had to get dressed and drive to a hospital, where a health care professional would draw their blood, process it and them give them the result hours later. Today, these same people can take a reading of their own blood glucose in seconds, without having to interrupt their schedule.

I've blogged on disruptive innovation before - the area continues to intrigue me as ripe with opportunity for philanthropy. In my view, what distinguishes philanthropies from charities or government organizations is that we possess the vision, assets and staying power to drive this type of transformative change.  We also know from experience how to discover, test and leverage fresh "disruptive innovations" of our own.

This is philanthropy as it should be - summoning the forces of disruptive innovation and retooling to improve the health, health care and quality of life for everyone in America.

We enthusiastically welcome your participation in the competition, by entering and/or joining the active Changemakers discussion spaces.  Please also share word of the competition with colleagues, grantees or others who you think may be interested.  For more information, I encourage you to visit the RWJF Web site, click on E-Mail Services at the top of the page and sign up for content alerts from Pioneer.

We hope to build on our experience with blogging and running open-source competitions to connect with new audiences both in and outside the fields of health and health care, and to broaden participation in our work.  They provide dynamic new mechanisms for increasing understanding, fostering interactive dialogue, and advancing solutions that make a difference in people's lives.  We hope you'll participate in these new channels and add your thoughts and ideas to the mix.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.