What Would Google Do? Foundation Edition

I was so impressed by Marc Sirkin's thoughtful nonprofit analysis of Jeff Jarvis's book "What Would Google Do" that I thought I would take a crack at how the book applies to the foundation sector. Marc's summary of the book at its application to the nonprofit sector is dead on. From Marc:

If you haven't yet read the book, the basic premise is that Google fundamentally operates differently than traditional businesses by embracing concepts like abundance (as opposed to scarcity) along with open communication, collaboration and community. That's too simple an explanation, but to be honest, you should read this book anyway, so I'll skimp on that since I know you'll order it immediately!

In any case, those same traits and behaviors that Google uses are polar opposite of how many traditional non-profits operate. Like most traditional business models, many non-profits have are caught in an odd spot - it's clear that something big is happening, but there hasn't been a forcing function like Napster demolishing the music business for example that has created a need for massive, fundamental change. Unfortunately for many large non-profits, I believe it's about to happen and is going to really surprise and destroy a lot of well known and traditional institutions.

I think these same factors are also going to destroy the relevance of some foundations. Don't get me wrong, many ineffective foundations will continue to exists because the market doesn't weed out foundations that are not adding value to the community but some that embrace some of the values that Google has modeled will thrive during this time.  Here are some of the themes that are applicable to foundations:

Make mistakes well- Many Foundations are terrified at the thought of failure (i.e. wasting money), that they won't take the risks necessary to have real success. Using Google's model of beta testing, foundations could fund a series of pilot projects that are transparent and allow for critique of the foundation's theory of change and  process to access funds (application, length of time for grant process, additional technical support).

The masses are dead, long live the niches- Foundations with missions like "here to make our community a better place" are wasting impact and grantseekers time. Very few foundations are actually interested in receiving applications from nonprofits across the spectrum, they have an idea of the types of programs they would like to support but leave their guidelines vague so they have the option to support emerging needs in the community (or pet projects). By picking a specific area and maybe even tactics for the work they support, foundations would develop relationships in their field of interest and would develop an impressive knowledge base to find new solutions to the problems they are trying to address. Catering to the nonprofit masses only leads to mediocrity.

When presented with a problem simplify, organize, and make it all transparent- Foundations have access to amazing data about community problems and tried solutions. Distilling community problems to a more simplified problem statement, organizing all of the information the foundation has on that area, and making it available for all to see would move our sector closer to solutions.

Collaboration with customers- A key foundation customer is the grantee. What are we doing to collaborate with our nonprofit colleague? Mandatory training and paperwork is not what an effective collaboration is made from. How about open conversations about foundation and nonprofit challenges? Open relationships where both partner realizes they can't accomplish their goal with out the other?

The problems that we are facing together are too urgent for us to blindly hold on to old ways of doing this work. We need to let go of the processes and mindsets in our sector that are holding us back and think about how getting googlerific might help us bring innovation to our field.

How would you like to see foundations innovate or simplify?