The Philanthropic Lab in 2014

I began 2013 writing about how the Rita Allen Foundation draws inspiration from the young biomedical scholars we support. We aim to be, in a sense, a philanthropic lab—where creativity, risk, collaboration, assessment and learning are part of everything we do. Never has there been a more exciting time to be a philanthropic lab, as new tools and new hypotheses are accelerating learning, social change and impact. Here at the Rita Allen Foundation, we’re also excited to be welcoming new plans, new grant partners and new Board members to propel us to new realms of exploration.

As we continue into this new year, developments in our own work and in society and science at large are making it possible to use data to understand the world in new ways; to become far more responsive to those who are meant to benefit from our work; and to see big, risky ideas produce results that touch people’s lives. Here are three areas we’re looking forward to most in the coming year. How about you?

1. Mapping Philanthropy
We are continually exploring the philanthropic landscape to learn what nonprofits and funders are at work in a particular area and how we can contribute. To stick with the lab metaphor, this is our lit review. But it has its constraints—especially when we want to understand a large field. So we value the opportunity to partner with others to build knowledge about complex fields. Recently Media Impact Funders, with support from the Rita Allen Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation, created AIM—Assessing the Impact of Media—a new online portal that presents analysis, tools and trends that shed light on the effectiveness of media with a social purpose. Media Impact Funders is also working to map media fundingin the United States. As these new, growing resources inform our work and that of many others, 2014 promises to be a transformative year for public-interest media.

On another, related front, we are excited to be collaborating with a group of seven other foundations and the Foundation Center to create a much more detailed and dynamic map of a vast—and rapidly changing—area of the social sector: civic engagement and U.S. democracy. I’ll be writing more about this when the first results are in hand later in the year. For now, I can say that the ability to gather such large amounts of information, along with the commitment to make them freely available to all funders and nonprofits in an interactive way, is one way philanthropy and the social sector are advancing change.

This is also just one of many ways that data science is transforming the social sector—with help from emerging organizations like DataKind, Code for America, and the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (all of which receive support from the Rita Allen Foundation), along with many others committed to using data in new ways to improve lives.

2. A New Generation of Feedback Loops
As a field, philanthropy and social-impact nonprofits are still in the early stages of using data and evaluation to leverage opportunities for faster learning and more effective change. One of the weakest points to date has been one of the most important: listening to people who are meant to benefit from social-sector work and making changes based on their feedback.

Look for this problem to receive considerable new attention and energy in the coming months and years. This year, we are eagerly anticipating early results from a number of projects we’re supporting aimed at strengthening our collective ability to listen. Leading the way is Feedback Labs, a new network of organizations committed to ensuring that people served by social-change work have a strong voice in each part of the process. Feedback Labs is working to build new tools and a wider conversation about how feedback can help create better projects from the start, allow for swifter course correction, and ultimately create better, more sustainable results.

Again, data plays a key role here—less “big data” than data that’s individual and local. From what we’ve seen so far, government agencies, foundations and nonprofits are engaging with these ideas with a voracity that suggests that important advances are close at hand.

3. When Investigations into the Unknown Hit Home
We also look forward this year, like every year, to seeing ideas that started as creative leaps into the unknown develop into important advances—advances with the potential to make a significant, even life-saving impact on people’s lives. We see new technologies that completely revise how populations can get information or assistance, civic engagement programs that transform how people see their role in public life, and biomedical research that results in new treatments for disease and chronic pain.

Examples from our network abound. 2005 Rita Allen Foundation Scholar Johanna Joyce recently found that elements of the body’s immune system that are hijacked by brain cancer can be “reeducated” to fight it. Douglas T. Fearon, a member of the Rita Allen Foundation Scientific Advisory Committee, has identified a protein that protects pancreatic cancer tumors. In initial tests, a treatment including a drug aimed at the protein almost completely eliminated targeted cancer cells within one week. And already this year, markets have been humming with news of a deal for Sanofi to pay $700 million for a stake in Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, a biotech firm whose technology is based on RNA interference, the discovery for which 1989 Rita Allen Foundation Scholar Andrew Z. Fire won the Nobel Prize in 2006.

We look forward to sharing word of this year’s stories of exploration and discovery and to hearing yours as well. The greatest breakthroughs, after all, are often sparked by unexpected inspiration.