Weighing the Pros and Cons of Making Proposals Public

Aug 8, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by

Lori Melichar, director Lori Melichar, director

“Information wants to be free.” That’s the mantra of Internet culture, which is increasingly indistinguishable from culture at large. What does this cultural shift mean for a foundation seeking to fund innovation? Specifically, what does it mean for Pioneer?

My colleague, Nancy Barrand, and I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Clearly, the existence of this blog, and of our website and various social media channels, are all proof that we share more information outside the walls of this Foundation than we ever did before. But we still keep one part of our process under lock and key: proposal review.

Each year, thousands of organizations submit proposals to RWJF, and only the fraction of them that receive funding are ever shared publicly. This is less a comment on the quality of the ideas than it is on the specificity of our funding strategy, and, of course, the fact that our budget is finite. Increasingly, we’ve wished we could share the ideas we don’t fund with a wider audience, so they could benefit from the collective intelligence of our growing network.

In other words: Let’s say someone submits an idea to Pioneer and it’s not a good fit for us, for whatever reason. What if that idea were posted on our website, where a community of researchers, practitioners and the other highly creative and intelligent members of our network could view it? What if someone connected the dots between an applicant’s idea and another project underway somewhere – and what if that yielded a partnership that helped bring the idea to fruition? What if someone had feedback or a question about the idea that helped the applicant sharpen the project’s focus, or see its potential in a new light?

Of course, there would be challenges, and plenty of questions to answer before we could proceed in such manner. I explored some of these questions with Drs. Kevin Volpp and David Asch, co-directors of the Foundation’s Behavioral Economics Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, in the first episode of the Pioneering Ideas podcast (listen here at 4:35). Some of the questions we considered included:

  • If proposals were public, how could we engage members of the academic community, where claiming authorship of an idea is so tightly tied to professional success? To what extent could we safeguard applicants’ intellectual property rights?
  • Could this be a process applicants would opt into – or something from which they’d opt out?

As my colleagues and I consider these questions, we’d love to hear your thoughts about the potential benefits (and downsides) of a more open proposal process. Are there examples of other foundations that handle their proposals in this way? (The Knight News Challenge and the Ashoka Changemakers platform are two examples that come to mind.) Are there other marketplaces of ideas that you think are particularly well designed?

Would you be more or less likely to submit a proposal if the process were completely transparent?

We’d value your input. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.