Borrowing is the New Innovation


Christian Gahrmann


Though not officially on the agenda, there was one message popping up in many sessions and speeches on the 26th EFC Annual Conference in Milan: “Borrowing is the new innovation!”

Companies do it, NGOs do it and foundations should do it, too: Borrowing, copying, “stealing” good ideas. China’s wealthiest business man – and by the way, most active philanthropist – Jack Ma, founder and CEO of Alibaba – did it when he copied the idea of Ebay for the Chinese market and called it Taobao. United Way of America did so when they transferred the concept of community impact from US community foundations to their chapters. And the German Fritz Henkel Foundation is doing it by supporting Teach First, which has adapted the concept of Teach for America to the German school system.

A good idea should spread and reach as many people as possible. Sharing of best practice – that’s not by accident the best concept to successfully apply for EU funds or to convince social investors to put their money in your project. It’s actually what most foundation are looking for, when they make their grant decisions.

Foundations have good arguments why preferring unique innovations. If these innovative ideas are successful, they can have an immense leverage effect and ultimately change the face of earth. Since only one in thousand innovations is that successful, the financial and political independence of foundations is crucial.

But today good ideas are not missing – we know how we could easily, within a few years, tackle climate change, end hunger and stop HIV –, but the fair distribution, adaption and implementation of these concepts. The internet produces worldwide excellent ideas – every minute. There is no thought which has not been thought already – somewhere, sometime.

I like borrowing – especially books. I borrow them from the library, but as well from friends, colleagues or family. This way I do not only save money and reduce the use of resources (wood) but also learn which books are most recommendable, whether a story works or not. And by the way, I meet and chat with my friends when I fetch the book!

The same is true for borrowing innovations from other foundations. It saves resources, enables learning and benchmarking, makes sure that a good innovation can really spread, and fosters co-operations and networking among foundations. Beneficiaries don’t see any difference whether an innovation is really unique or “only” borrowed and adapted. When the “unique innovation” of telemedicine was borrowed by the Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation to deliver health counseling in remote African and Indian villages people there did not care that the idea was first developed for a 24-hour medical service at the Boston airport in 1967.

There is no innovative idea which has not been thought already. But there are thousands of good innovations which have not reached all people on earth yet. Making this happen could be a new vision for foundations in the 21st century.

Dr. Christian Gahrmann is owner and managing director of the international consulting firm Christian Gahrmann Philanthropy Consulting, which specializes in strategic and international fundraising and EU funding programs. He advises national and international foundations on fundraising strategies in order to complement their income from endowments.

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