Getting Intentional about Innovation
Gary Community Investments recently announced a multi-million dollar human and financial capital commitment to catalyzing innovation in the early childhood sector. But we didn’t arrive at the decision to pursue an innovation strategy within our School Readiness outcome area quickly--it was the culmination of a multi-year process that included an internal examination of our cultural identity, learning from past work, doing extensive research, testing our tolerance for risk, and asking ourselves, “Why GCI?” The following is insight into that process, and how we ultimately decided that now is the time for GCI to play a role in fostering innovation in early childhood.
Internal Reflection: Innovation in our DNA
As we began thinking about integrating more innovation into our portfolio, we were motivated by GCI’s 40-year history of taking an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy. Although the strategies we are using to cultivate early childhood innovation are new for us, GCI has always been open to testing new approaches to solving problems, including incubating some of Denver’s most influential nonprofits like the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the Denver Preschool Program and the Urban Land Conservancy. And the willingness to do things differently continues today through our for-profit/philanthropic structure, which is testing a hybrid investment approach to creating lasting social impact. But the most compelling reason for us to pursue innovation is our sunsetting mandate--by approximately 2035, GCI intends to invest all of our assets into community and business vehicles that address the challenges facing Colorado’s low-income children and their families. We believe that building an innovation practice within GCI will help us unearth the new, sometimes risky and disruptive, ideas that have the potential to transform programs, organizations and sectors and ultimately achieve our long-term vision.
Learning Forward: Taking Chances & Being Opportunistic
We spent the past three years learning by doing within our School Readiness outcome area. By trying new things and being comfortable making mistakes, we realized that more momentum and different types of capital is needed to ensure the school readiness and long-term success of all children, and that harnessing the power of science, technology and business practices, combined with access to capital, could pave the way for new early childhood solutions to be surfaced, piloted and scaled.
Assessing how to best source investments: In 2015, we solicited grant proposals from the community for the first time through a Letter of Intent process that aimed to source investment opportunities within our school readiness outcome area. After testing this new approach to engaging potential investees, we began expanding our thinking about how to best source ideas and investments that can create transformative change within the early childhood field. As a result, we’ve become more transparent in how we communicate about our school readiness strategy, and we’re continuing to explore new ways of surfacing ideas, partners and investments, such as through prize or challenge strategies.
Understanding the capital landscape: We commissioned Imprint Capital to conduct a scan of the early childhood and two-generation sectors to help us more proactively pursue investment opportunities. The findings provided key insights that continue to inform our innovation work today, including that more early childhood-focused business models are needed; technology can be a lever for scale and greater effectiveness; there is growing interest in early childhood from philanthropic and for-profit investors; and that there is capital on the sidelines that could be directed to early childhood but investors need the appropriate vehicles.
Exploring innovation tools: To hold ourselves accountable, we intentionally named innovation as a focus area within our investment strategy--and we slowly began to activate that focus area by learning about and exploring a range of innovation tools. In 2016, we hosted Uncharted’s (formerly The Unreasonable Institute) first early childhood accelerator event. During that week, we learned that the accelerator process works for early childhood; there is value in the healthy tension that comes from pairing EC-focused nonprofits with for-profit entrepreneurs; and that rapid prototyping can help us imagine solutions to problems that seem insurmountable. But, perhaps most unexpectedly, the accelerator created buzz and confidence within our organization---about the potential of innovation to support the transformation early childhood. After our accelerator experience, we’ve continued exploring other innovation tools, including ones outlined in the Innovation Guide for Funders like rapid prototyping and human-centered design, and identifying the ones that are right for GCI to pursue.
Due Diligence: Building a Team, Doing Research & Defining Outcomes
Building a cross-department team: As we were exploring innovation tools, we realized our school readiness innovation strategies couldn’t be successfully led by one individual--to be most effective, we needed a dedicated, cross-departmental team to realize this work. We began by assembling a core group from our investment and strategic assessment teams, and, as needed, we’ve brought in additional support from other departments, like communications and legal. Currently, we have staff from across departments devoting significant time to realizing this work, and the group serves as an internal example of how GCI can encourage collaboration among our various teams.
Committing to action: As our internal innovation team began to solidify itself, we put significant effort into thinking about how a project focused on early childhood innovation fits within our organization. We asked lots of questions and acknowledged where we might encounter internal challenges. While the initial focus of the team was internal learning, it quickly became clear that we needed to seize the opportunity and focus on external activation. In addition to putting together a comprehensive road map for pursuing early childhood innovation over the next year, we have been intentional about incorporating an innovation lens into existing tools, like our Transformative Impact Grid.
Defining the outcomes we’re seeking: We’ve been clearly defining--and refining--the metrics of success we’re seeking from this work. Currently, our goals are to source more varied solutions, deploy capital more efficiently, better coordinate investments around problems that need solving and build our internal capacity to potentially execute similar innovation strategies, and our outcomes are related to the 10-19 year school readiness outcomes identified in our theory of change.
Responding to a Call for Boldness
In 2014, Sam Gary, who is chairman of our board, challenged us to be bolder in our investing--a green light for our investment team to take more risks and make bigger bets that have the potential to create transformational impact. The board’s suggestion that we take a more innovative approach, especially within our school readiness outcome area, reiterated staff’s thinking that GCI could be doing more to catalyze innovation in early childhood. Ultimately, the decision to pursue new tools to cultivate innovation was mutually-driven by both our board and staff, which created buy-in across all levels of the organization. Building on the momentum we’ve been creating internally, we’ve been simultaneously talking with local and national partners to test the timing of this work and found an equal level of energy and excitement around innovation exists externally.
As this work continues to move forward, we will be regularly sharing updates and insights on our website and through our Shared Knowledge blog, and we encourage you to sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with the latest on this work.