By Elaine Gast Fawcett, on behalf of ASF
“The way we imagine the world will determine what we do.” —David Bornstein
What if we are closer to solving problems than we realize?
New York Times columnist and author David Bornstein believes that the solutions for the some of world’s biggest problems already exist. They may not be in your backyard, but they’re out there. It’s just a matter of finding them.
Bornstein addressed a roomful of leaders in philanthropy at Monday’s ASF 2012 National Conference plenary lunch. He spoke about the ways funders can find innovative solutions to major social problems by examining what works—and what doesn’t—around the globe.
“What if we could eradicate homelessness in three or four years? Change the foster care system so that 80, 90, even 100% of those kids came out fully functional? Or change schools so that children were kind instead of bullies?” he said. “We’re doing many of these things today. We have the solutions. It’s a blueprint—not a poem.”
I know what you’re thinking: How can I get my hands on that blueprint?
Bornstein says the days of magical thinking are now over. We’ve come into another period of enlightenment, where scientific thinking on cause and effect will come more to the fore. Still, it’s hard to imagine that an actual blueprint exists for all problems—one that can be replicated across any town with the results.
I mean, if we could really end homelessness, wouldn’t we have heard about it by now? What’s the benefit to anyone keeping these solutions a secret? But to Bornstein’s point, if we don’t start by imagining the solutions are out there, chances are we won’t look for them.
According to Bornstein, small-staffed philanthropies are in the perfect position to do this looking. Unlike some of their larger counterparts or private investors, small foundations are agile, on the ground, close to their communities. As he said, they can go deep and narrow into an issue area, become an expert on it, and take big bets on the things that matter.
“As small foundations, you hold the most innovative capital in society,” said Bornstein.
“You have the capacity to aspire to solving problems—not just working on them or managing them. There’s so much potential in your hands.”
As a small-staffed foundation, how can you find innovative solutions?
Bornstein calls for foundations to take an investigative approach when it comes to finding what innovative solutions already exist. (Spoken like a true journalist.) Make phone calls. Start a database of sources. Find the people who know about what you want to learn.
Don’t have time to do it yourself? It can be helpful, he said, to partner with a university. Offer them some funding to do the research for you. That, or find a journalist to help you.
Want to hear more from Bornstein? Listen to a free podcast with David Bornstein hosted by Henry Berman, CEO of ASF, here: The Unique Niche of Social Entrepreneurs.
Elaine Gast Fawcett helps foundations tell their story, educate their stakeholders, and move their mission forward. For 12 years, she has worked nationally to strengthen the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors as a communications and grantmaking consultant. Originally from the Maryland/DC area, Elaine now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Ted and brand new baby Scarlett. Reach Elaine at Elaine@fourwindswriting.com or on Twitter @4WindsWriting.