Pioneer: kicking off the new year with a bit of reflection

Jan 8, 2008, 2:33 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

The Pioneer Portfolio is supposed to support novel, high-return ideas that may have a big impact on people's health and their health care in the future. We’ve been in existence for about four years now. Not long ago, our team spent a day to ask ourselves, are we doing what we’re supposed to be doing? Do the projects we have supported exhibit the breakthrough potential we hope to see?

We also asked a handful of outsiders the same questions and over the next several days we’ll be posting bloggified (a word I thought I made up, but which shows up with multiple hits on Google) versions of their response.

Reflecting on their responses (and our staff discussions), I was struck by a couple things…There is a sense that the projects we’ve supported have become more pioneering over the four years. That reflects, I think, our developing understanding of what we mean when we say, “this is pioneering.” There are two things to note here: first is the distinction between an improvement, an innovation within an existing business or social change model, and an innovation that could challenge an existing model. Raising a car fleet’s mileage by an average two miles per gallon would be an improvement. Using hybrid engines to raise fleet mileage by 10 miles per gallon would be an innovation within an existing business model. Building solar powered Segways and convincing people to use them on all trips under 20 miles would be an innovation that challenges an existing business model. We want to look at ideas that fall into that last space.

Related to this is that when we look at an idea in that space, we look to see whether there’s a plausible path from promising idea to broad adoption. If there are some steps along the path akin to, “and then a miracle occurs,” – where the components for widespread uptake are not in place for the idea to reasonably flourish – we’re unlikely to support the idea.

That plausible path also represents stages along a continuum of change. Looking back at our grants, we see they fall into three rough stages: Grants to Learn; Grants to Design, Develop and Validate an idea; and, Grants to Spread an idea. The majority of our grants to date have fallen into the second category. That makes sense. Too much money devoted to learning means too many ideas remain ideas on paper and don’t get a test in the real world. And if we focused the bulk of our funds on spreading, we’d only be able to support a handful of projects over longer periods of time. Our sense is that there’s more benefit to health and health care—and to RWJF—by having a portfolio that looks to nurture lots of potential breakthrough ideas, providing support at stages in an innovation’s life cycle that make the most sense given a philanthropy’s limited resources.

The second thing I was struck by is the yield we get from networking efforts vs. the yield we get from hoping good ideas reach us through our open doors. Generally, more grants result from our networking efforts than from ideas sent in cold. I don’t think that yield ratio means you have to know someone inside the Pioneer Portfolio. Currently, much of what gets sent in cold falls into the “raise a car fleet’s mileage by an average two miles per gallon” category. An improvement, to be sure, but not a breakthrough innovation.  Our staff—we hope—is getting better at finding innovation. But I also think that a lot of people with the kinds of ideas we’re looking for don’t always look to places like RWJF for funding. Over time, we’re hoping to change that so more people with pioneering ideas look to us as a valuable resource and potential partner.

It was extremely helpful to us to have outside individuals take a look and provide frank answers on how we’re doing. We’ll be opening up our grants, and our wider work, to outside scrutiny more regularly as a key way of understanding the impact we are (or are not) having. It’s useful to have the blog as a vehicle through which we can share this information with you as well – it’s a bit more rapid, flexible and open that our standard published evaluation reports. We hope you find the bloggified responses from the external reviewers to be of interest. Let us know what you think.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.