The following is a conversation between Amy Goldman, CEO of The GHR Foundation and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: In philanthropy, good ideas can come from anywhere. And one of the very best was hatched by a relatively modest family foundation in Minnesota, the GHR Foundation. And the idea was something called the BridgeBuilder Challenge. And here to discuss it with us this evening is the chief executive officer of the GHR Foundation, Amy Goldman.
Good evening, Amy, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Amy: Good evening, Denver. I am happy to be here.
Denver: Why don’t we begin by having you tell us about the GHR Foundation, your mission and the areas that you have traditionally supported?
Amy: Certainly. As you mentioned, GHR is a family foundation based in the Minneapolis area. We’ve actually been in existence for over 50 years in a relatively quiet way, and focused primarily in the areas of education, health and global development.
Our mission is really focused on creating transformational change in the areas that we work in. A lot of this stems from our legacy — our founders created a real estate development firm that really pioneered the concept of design-build and construction & design. And we have taken that approach and applied it to how we do our giving. So with design-build, we really think about how to have an integrated process, how to collaborate with partners, how to be creative… and not really often know what the outcome is going to be because we’re constantly learning as we’re working in the areas that we’re investing in.
So, the BridgeBuilder Challenge, which I am certainly happy to talk about, really was an outcome of our thinking more directly about this inheritance that we had of the design-build approach. And so it was our opportunity to start to test some of those ideas a little bit more out in the open than we had been in the past.
Denver: Well, how was this idea conceived, and how exactly does it work, Amy?
Amy: We have several grants that we call legacy grants, which we really view as long-term partnerships with specific institutions that mean a lot to the founders of the foundation. We had one legacy grant where we were thinking – we wanted to take an opportunity with that grant and that partnership to try something new. And we clearly were inspired by Pope Francis’ will calling globally to build bridges across areas. We found that very powerful. So Denver, we were thinking about: what are we going to do with this legacy grant to perhaps respond to that call of Pope Francis? While at the same time, we were thinking about: how can we open the windows at our foundation and let some fresh air in? How can we find out what those good ideas are out there? We started to think about creating a challenge.
So initially we thought, with the BridgeBuilder Challenge, again, that was inspired by Pope Francis, we started thinking about doing this internally and realized very quickly that we had limited capacity to do this ourselves. So, we looked around for partners and ended up partnering with OpenIDEO and we were very attracted to the OpenIDEO approach of human-centered design. We thought that that was completely consistent with our approach at the foundation to really put people at the center of all of our goals for our programs.
So we started our partnership with OpenIDEO, and frankly, it was a bit of an experiment and a stretch, I think for both of us, I will certainly talk for GHR Foundation; OpenIDEO had not issued a challenge with a private foundation before. So we were learning as we went, but also, as I mentioned, learning in the open in a very transparent way. And I’d be happy to discuss more details of that if you’re interested, but that is the basic outline of how we landed on the BridgeBuilder Challenge concept about a year ago at this time.
We chose those three pillars, along with the fourth pillar of People because, again, it really resonated with this call from Pope Francis, on building bridges across these areas.
Denver: And the three pillars of the BridgeBuilder concept were: Peace, Prosperity and Planet. How do they intersect?
Amy: We chose those three pillars, along with the fourth pillar of People because, again, it really resonated with this call from Pope Francis, on building bridges across these areas. So for us, the fourth pillar of people is the human-centered design approach that we used with OpenIDEO. Then with peace, prosperity and planet, we put that in, in our open call globally to ask for ideas that bridged at least two or all three of those pillars because we’ve really seen in action the strengths and the greater outcomes that can be generated by this intersection of these areas. And it really was a requirement for the ideas that came in and that surfaced, that the organizations and the ideas and the people working on the ground were thinking cross-sectorally across peace, prosperity, and planet.
Denver: Yeah, and that’s quite distinctive from other philanthropic challenges and prizes. Right?
Amy: We have found it to be, and I think it’s demonstrated by the fact that we had such an enthusiastic response beyond our wildest expectations. So, we weren’t quite sure how unique it was, and we were testing it, and we certainly think it confirms this uniqueness, again, to bridge across these areas.
Denver: Well, speaking about submissions, how many people submitted ideas in the initial BridgeBuilder Challenge?
Amy: Well, it’s a little hard to believe now, but at the time when we were doing our risk assessment around launching the BridgeBuilder Challenge, one of our biggest worries was: would we get enough responses. We ended up getting over 650, really 662 responses…
Denver: Wow, that’s amazing.
Amy: Yes. It really, it just absolutely astonished us, and also we had engagement with the challenge in 185 countries.
Denver: That is really very impressive. And when people put forth their submissions, you posted them online. Correct?
Amy: Yes. Everything was online, learning in the open. So, the ideas would come in; they would be online on the BridgeBuilder platform. They’re still there; we’re keeping that platform live, and I encourage anyone to go visit it to see the scope and the diversity of ideas. And then, the process itself was also online as we went through feedback. Essentially, ideas would come in, and there would be feedback then from the beneficiaries of these ideas. So, it was an opportunity for the ideas to go back to their own communities and refine and get input on the ideas.
And then we had a next stage which was an expert feedback area. So, we contacted, and we’re very grateful for interaction from a large group of experts in various areas where the ideas came in, and they would give feedback. Again, all on the platform.
So, there are many aspects to this that really, we are testing. The one aspect is that this process be beneficial to all the ideas that are submitted. So, with this transparency and learning in the open, the ideas themselves could be refined, whether or not they end up being the awardees from GHR Foundation. It’s also an opportunity to attract additional funding from other foundations, but also just the general public. And when I say that, I mean globally, because we’ve had so much engagement from countries around the world.
Denver: Just a fascinating process, Amy. Well, you recently announced the top five ideas of this inaugural challenge. Share with our listeners a couple of them.
Amy: We have five ideas as you said. It’s like choosing among your children. They are all exciting and wonderful, and we are really looking forward to working together with this cohort of ideas. I would highlight two. One– just very briefly because it hits on all three of peace, prosperity and planet. The bridges. And it is a project to promote ethical gold mining as a pathway to peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a bit complicated, so I really want to highlight it because it really does engage across prosperity– to support miners; across peace– because they’re former combatants. And then across planet– because it is pioneering a method to have environmentally sustainable gold mining. But I’ll bracket that and encourage everyone to go take a look at it because this other idea, I think, is also extremely interesting and I want to be sure to highlight it– which is tree planting drones.
We’re restoring mangroves and livelihoods in Myanmar, and this is a partnership again at the local village level that started with seeing the devastation of the mangroves… which along the coast of Myanmar really are vital for maintaining fishing and fishing communities. So, a direct link between planet and prosperity, and this coming out of a local community-based response; then partnering with a firm out of the UK that is bringing the technology in to dramatically increase the amount of new trees that can be planted because of using drones. So it really, I think, is an opportunity to take a project that’s already in action for the benefit of the communities, but then catapulting it in with the use of technology into planting a million mangroves a year.
So, those are two ideas I’d like to highlight. But again, I encourage people to look at all five because we’re very excited about all of them.
Denver: All five of them are great. But those are two great examples… Amy, how are you going to gauge the impact of the grants you’ve made to these five organizations?
Amy: Denver, what’s great about that questions is first of all: gauging the impact is really key to how GHR does its work in all of our areas. But what’s particularly interesting with the BridgeBuilder Challenge is that we are experimenting and walking into some unknown territory. So, our first step on gauging the impact is we’re bringing the cohort of awardees together and having a workshop in October to start to really support all five of them collaboratively… and what they’re going to be learning from each other across areas that they’re working in. So, we are hopeful that the impact will not only… and the impact that we’ll really look at on the ground, will not only be specific to each organization, but will also be across the cohort of organizations. So then we can look at: what is the impact of bringing five diverse organizations together and giving them support? And when I say support, I mean, in addition to the grant: what is the impact of that?
And then in our next Challenge– because we’re going to be doing this again next year: what have we learned from the power of cohort, as well as the grant itself?
…we wanted to open up the windows a bit and get some fresh air into the foundation, and we certainly feel we have achieved that with the global platform and the global response that we’ve had.
Denver: Through a challenge like this, there are always lessons to be learned, not just for the GHR Foundation, but for the field of philanthropy at large. Did any of those lessons stand out to you?
Amy: Yes, Denver. Several. I would start with the open innovation process itself. This has really introduced a heightened degree of transparency to our grant making certainly, and the social innovation in general which we are learning from our partnership with OpenIDEO. So, I would start there. In addition for GHR Foundation, it has really helped us expand our orbit of partners and ideas and new geographies. As I mentioned earlier, we wanted to open up the windows a bit and get some fresh air into the foundation, and we certainly feel we have achieved that with the global platform and the global response that we’ve had.
Another thing we’ve really learned from this is an integrated approach. We’ve brought in our communications, our program areas. We’ve really involved the entire foundation in how to structure the BridgeBuilder Challenge, and how to move forward with it. So that, from an internal perspective, has been a strength that I really would like to highlight because it’s a bit of an unusual approach to grant making. And, I think finally with the BridgeBuilder Challenge, we are thinking of this as iterative. So this is Year One. We have a three-year commitment at this point to having the process go the way it goes with OpenIDEO. So, we are really anticipating that we can integrate everything that we’re learning through the platform, through our partnerships, and through the ideas as we move forward… and make this a richer and better process.
Denver: And we’re all going to benefit from that learning. Well, Amy Goldman, the chief executive office of the GHR Foundation, I want to thank you so much for joining us this evening. For listeners who want to learn more about the foundation… or those five top ideas of the BridgeBuilder Challenge, where can they go to get that information?
Amy: Denver, listeners can go to ghrfoundation.org. We have a link that goes directly from our website to the BridgeBuilder Challenge.
Denver: Thanks very much Amy. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Amy: Thanks, Denver. I enjoyed it.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of the The Business of Giving right after this.
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