Collaboration for Discovery and Change

This summer brings exciting announcements from two core areas of the Rita Allen Foundation’s work. The first is the announcement of the 2014 Class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars—seven remarkable biomedical scientists in the early stages of careers that promise to transform how we understand and treat disease.

The second is the launch of a powerful new tool for understanding the landscape of philanthropy aimed at supporting American civil society, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy. Developed by the Foundation Center with support from eight funders in the field, including the Rita Allen Foundation, the tool allows funders, nonprofits and other interested parties to sift through data on the $1.7 billion (and counting) granted by foundations to strengthen civic engagement in the United States since 2011. For the first time, we have an open tool for visualizing who gave how much to whom for what. While the tool and the data will continue to develop, it already gives a tremendously useful view of opportunities for greater partnerships and knowledge in the field—both for funders and for the organizations, small and large, established and emerging, working to strengthen our democracy. As Kelly Born of the Hewlett Foundation, another of the project partners, writes in a post introducing the tool: “As useful as this data set and visualization will be for foundations already working in the field or new funders considering entering it, the real killer app for this work will be to help grant seekers.”

Five years ago, following an influx of new resources and an analysis of how we could best contribute as strategic philanthropists, the Rita Allen Foundation added to its longstanding program in biomedical science a focus on civic literacy and engagement. While these are two distinct—and often very different—areas of investment, there is a great deal that unites them. I’ve touched on a few of these intersections in this blog and elsewhere. In the case of this pair of announcements, it strikes me that both the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program and the U.S. democracy mapping project are the product of highly effective collaborations—and are designed to fuel other collaborations.

The Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program supports emerging scientific leaders pursuing pioneering research with a high level of risk. Central to the program’s success—having supported some of today’s most influential biomedical scientists at key moments in their careers—is the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee. With leadership from Dr. Kathleen M. Foley, Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Chair, who heads the Committee and was herself an early Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, these senior scientists collaboratively review applications, making selections on the basis of a wealth of diverse experiences across the field. They also look for evidence of collaboration in the applications they review—with more and more cross-disciplinary collaboration at play in recent years as science seeks to understand the complex phenomena of human life.

So too the creation of the new tool for mapping democracy-related funding has been highly collaborative, with each of the partnering foundations bringing their own perspective to the table to inform discussions (and sometimes debates) about what we mean when we talk about supporting U.S. civil society. The resulting tool, in turn, is already helping us identify areas for potential new collaborations with funders who share our areas of interest.

And ultimately, what are either science or democracy but very large collaborations—with millions of participants over time, working together, debating together, each adding to what’s come before to build our society and our knowledge. We’re proud to be lending a hand to both.