What is Innovation?

Innovation is discovering what works best and bringing it to the table :: Grace Nicolette

Episode Summary

Episode 21 of “What is Innovation?” is live! This week, Jared talks with Grace Nicolette, Vice President at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. Grace shares her point of view on innovation in the world of charitable giving. Listen and subscribe today!

Episode Notes

Grace Nicolette, Vice President at the Center for Effective Philanthropy talks innovation in the world of charitable giving.

More about our guest:

Grace Chiang Nicolette, Vice President of Programming and External Relations, works closely with the President on the organization’s partnerships, outreach efforts, communications, and innovative programming, including oversight of CEP’s biennial conference for foundation executives. Prior to this role, Grace was a manager on CEP’s Assessment team, where she led the marketing, creation, and presentation of CEP’s benchmarking assessments for individual foundations. Grace is a frequent speaker at conferences and to the foundation and nonprofit boards and staff on topics of philanthropic effectiveness and also philanthropy in China.


Episode Guide:

2:00 - What Is Innovation

2:13 - The aspect of discovery

2:48 - Which is tougher: discovery or bringing to the table?

4:39 - Bringing in the resources vs building a bridge to connect?

6:17 - Philanthropists and the business world: Outcomes and Approches

6:30 - The Center for Effective Philanthropy

8:16 - How does the Center function

12:22 - Measuring success and impact as an organization  

15:04 - A mirror to other foundations

17:56 - Following the science of research

18:37 - Working with different foundations and industries

21:59 - Experiences with working for non-profits

27:20 - Advice to future innovators

OUTLAST Consulting offers professional development and strategic advisory services in the areas of innovation and diversity management.

Episode Transcription

/This transcript was automatically generated using AI; please forgive any inconsistencies. We are working to provide the correct and more concise copy of the transcript. For urgent needs, please send us an email.


Jared Simmons  00:05

Hello, and welcome to what is innovation. The podcast that explores the reality of a word that is in danger of losing its meaning altogether. This podcast is produced by Outlast consulting, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps companies use innovation principles to solve their toughest business problems. I'm your host, Jared Simmons, and I'm so excited to have grace jangling grace Jane Nicola is the Vice President of programming and External Relations for the Center for effective philanthropy. She works closely with the President on the organization's partnerships, outreach efforts, communications and innovative programming, including oversight of the CPS biannual conference for foundation executives. Prior to joining CDP grace co founded a philanthropy advisory firm in Shanghai that identifies investments and high potential nonprofits and social enterprises in China. She was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2011. She began her career working in finance in New York City group, and then in Shanghai at a semiconductor manufacturing company. Grace has an executive education certificate from Harvard's Kennedy School in global leadership and public policy, and graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania as a Benjamin Franklin scholar with a BA in economics and international relations. She resides with her husband and two children in Cambridge, where they are active members of their church. Greece. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us today.


Grace  01:32

Thanks for having me, Jared.


Jared Simmons  01:33

Oh, I'm super excited. I know, we met maybe four years ago, I think at an event and it was a pleasure to meet you. And I learned so much from our conversation. I'm glad we've been able to stay connected. And looking forward to this this chat. on record.





Jared Simmons  01:50

So why don't we dive right in? I mean, you we've kind of touched on a lot of different places, you've been things you've seen roles you've played, based on your experience, what is innovation?


Grace  02:04

innovation, to me is discovering what works best, and bringing it to the table.


Jared Simmons  02:10

Interesting discovering what works best. So that aspect of discovery. talking more about that?


Grace  02:17

Yeah, I think that sometimes the answers already exist. In fact, a lot of the times the answers are already there. That's definitely true in the field of philanthropy, and then sometimes the answers don't exist, and we have to go out and find them. But finding what works best, bringing it to the fore. You know, it's not doing something new for the sake of doing something new, but doing something that's effective.


Jared Simmons  02:42

I like your definition, because it's got aspects to it. So I think about the discovery, and I think about bringing it to the table. Which of those two elements in your career, in your experience is tougher, discovering it, or bringing it to the table?


Grace  02:56

Hmm. Wow, that's, that's an interesting question. I think both have their unique challenges. I mean, I think that sometimes, when I think about, you know, my world is, you know, the social sector and civil society, and discovering what works can be very complicated, much more complicated, I think, then, in other sectors. And then once you discover something, you know, similar to some challenges in other sectors, bringing that to the right people, bringing that to the decision makers, bringing that to the people that a policy or intervention may impact and bringing them along with it is so important. So both of those pieces are really vital to success, you can't have one without the other. Right. I think in philanthropy, there can be a lot of really top down thinking that like donors and funders, foundations know better, what, you know, people need than the people themselves. And I think that, you know, there really is an element of one hubris. And two, there is a challenge for folks to be in dialogue with communities that are really different than their community, and how do you bring people along? Or how do you listen to them and give them what they want?


Jared Simmons  04:19

Yes, I can imagine this in that world, that you're describing this inertia on both sides, you know, the way things are in the donor world and the way things are in the world that you're attempting to impact and change. And if I think about your definition of innovation, it almost makes me wonder which one is the table? You know, are you bringing you bringing the, you know, the the resources to the to the communities, are you you know, building a bridge to bring the community closer to the resources? Yeah,


Grace  04:51

that's a fantastic way of looking at it. Certainly. Both are very challenging, I think, but you know, really listening well to communities and understanding things from their perspective, I think sometimes seems more challenging. It's the actual giving of the money is not the hard part. It's the, you know, really understanding what works and listening to them. Right. It's interesting, because you mentioned inertia, I definitely feel like that is definitely true of philanthropy. And I think that we often see a lot of new philanthropists, newly minted ones coming in and saying, you know, the way that things are with nonprofits is totally broken. And I'm going to come in with some new ideas, and I'm going to, you know, move fast and break things, right. And they quickly learn that it's a really different ballgame in philanthropy than it is, let's say, in the business world. And so, for those of us who work with money, there's always a little bit of like, okay, yeah, we hear you, we've heard this before. And, you know, it's more encouraging when we hear a new donor donor saying, you know, actually, I'm here with a learning posture. And there's a lot I don't know, I'm here to learn. And there's a learning curve, like with this, like with many things, and so that, I think tends to be a more realistic and humble and successful approach to philanthropy.


Jared Simmons  06:17

Do you notice any differences in those two communities? Those two types of sort of new philanthropists? Do you notice a difference in the outcomes of the you know, those two different approaches?


Grace  06:28

Yeah. So, you know, at the Center for effective philanthropy, we do these assessments for foundations. And one of the things that we ask their nonprofit partners is, you know, how well does this foundation Listen, and what is the relationship you have, and we have all these different measures for relationship, and we do find that the better the relationship, the more likely nonprofit is to say that the donor is having an impact, because the donor has listened to what the needs are, things like that. So I would say that there are certainly donors who take a really harder kind of top down approach, saying, You don't know what you're doing, you need to come and I'm going to tell you how to fix things. Or you need to do this program the way that I want it done. And then there's the other kind of donor that really listens well, may have their own opinions, for sure. And, you know, expertise to bring to the table, which is usually highly valued by nonprofits, that they, you know, are open to learning, and don't come in with a preset agenda. That definitely, we do see as being more successful.


Jared Simmons  07:36

That makes sense, that makes sense. And, and how, you know, as you create these relationships, and, you know, create these connections, I guess, how is your role? Does your role evolve in that process?


Grace  07:53

In my role, in particular, or the organization, yeah,


Jared Simmons  07:56

probably organization that, you know, if you've got the community and the the folks that need need the support, and you've got the the donors, how does your role evolved from say, you know, creating that, identifying that opportunity through to, you know, how long these things involve?


Grace  08:14

Got it? Yeah, so, so we don't actually recommend projects, we basically provide data and insight on how funders, whether donors, or foundations can be more effective in their giving. So it's things like, as I mentioned, like how well are you listening? You know, what are the things that nonprofits are saying that equal, you know, the most impact for nonprofits, elevating some of the best practices in philanthropy and grant making. And so it's interesting, because over time, there has become sort of a body of, I would call it science around what makes for a good foundation donor, for instance. And, you know, when we do an assessment, we are working with an individual Foundation, their staff and board, we give them their results, in comparison with other funders that are their size, that are like them, as well as all of the funders in our sort of data set universe. And we really identify specific areas that they're uniquely, you know, their strengths are uniquely and then also areas for improvement. And then we, you know, give them suggestions on how to think about making some of the change. So for instance, you know, a lot of foundations really struggle with, okay, they only give one year grants, for instance, or they only give project grants. And we may come in and you know, the findings from their assessment show that nonprofits are needing multi year unrestricted general operating support grants. So we would say like, let's have a conversation about that, like what are the ways we're not saying you need to throw open the doors all at once and give that kind of funding that might be too much to ask too much for the board to take all at once. But are there a few grantees for instance, or nonprofits that you're funding that, you know, their mission inside and out, you know, that they're doing good work. And so therefore, you can fund them in a different way that actually supports their long term sustainability. And so we're really catalyzing a lot of those conversations. And then folks take our assessments over and over again. And so when we do it, the next time, we can see, hey, actually, nonprofits are, are really resonating with, you know, the changes that you've made, or these changes, didn't quite resonate, like, you know, that kind of thing. So it's sort of an ongoing, continuous improvement tool,


Jared Simmons  10:41

Jim. Yeah. And I thought, I mean, looking at the data and the types of reports you generate, and all those things, I assumed you had to create those relationships, like, but you're just you're working on behalf, I mean, you're generating the data. That's amazing. Because in, in, you know, I can go from consumer packaged goods world, and to be able to generate the kind of data you generate, and have views on both sides, is a very tough thing, if you aren't the one creating that relationship. So I almost assume that you were, and that's the, that's, it's impressive that your data and your insights are impactful enough for people to just proactively come to the table? And,


Grace  11:27

and, you know, we work with folks who fund, you know, the whole gamut of issue areas. So it's not, you know, specific to an issue area, like education or, or animals or anything like that. And so I think, you know, there are lessons to be had, you know, across issue areas of the actual practice of being a donor. I mean, I feel like, there are organizations out there that tell you why to give like, what are your values, the where to give, and even like the structuring, like the how to give, and our sweet spot is, how do you become more effective as a donor, so, like the, you know, the learning curve, and so folks like, for Foundation, Gates Foundation, all the way down to tiny family foundations and a lot of community Foundation's use our, our work to improve? You know, we're really trying to make the dollars go further, basically.


Jared Simmons  12:19

Yeah, that is that is fascinating. How does your score part of your definition of success as an organization? Does that look different? from sort of say, what you, you know, what you set out for, for your clients? Is that, you know, how does that look different?


Grace  12:36

Yeah, that's a great question. So our clients being funders, a lot of them do have endowments. So sort of managing to a operational budget is I mean, obviously, they have operational budgets, but it's different, right? Like we are a nonprofit, we do have earned revenue from our assessments, which we breakeven on, and then we also are half grant funded. And so, you know, I think that there are ways that, for instance, we offer a foundation staff survey. So for foundations that have staff of 15, or more things like how aligned Are you with the mission? How aligned Are you with the board? How clearly has the mission been communicated to you? Do you plan to leave anytime in the next, you know, it's an anonymous survey, but our staff actually takes that every year, and we actually compare ourselves to the data set. And then we have some pretty honest conversations, you know, we run the cross tabs on, you know, are women having a different experience in organization are people with lower 10 years having a different experience or people of color, having a different experience, and then we have a really honest conversation on what our strengths are, and then where we want to improve. And that's always a huge highlight. It's just really rich, definitely a point in time where we really sort of reinforce our culture in this really beautiful way, where we talk about, like, how we want to improve it. And all that. So yeah, so that's one way that we sort of make a tie between our external work and or kind of internal. Like the measurement of our of our impact,


Jared Simmons  14:11

that's fantastic. It's so important to be intellectually sort of consistent. It really starts to break down when you're selling data when you're selling insights. But you're not really driving. You don't have a culture driven by data and insights. And that's right. That can only last so long. Yes, or things that could go you'll start to fall off. Yeah, it's something that I've seen in a lot of research and development organizations where you hire a lot of data driven, insight focused people to serve your consumer customer, and then you neglect to leverage their insights and their, you know, thoughts internally, it's very easy for for those folks to identify those and consistency and feel is starting to feel a bit of tension.


Grace  15:03

Yes, we're holding up a mirror to a lot of foundations to say like, you know, this is what things look like. And then, you know, we definitely have to hold that mirror up to ourselves. So, you know, within the nonprofit world, there's a lot of conversations now about racial equity. And it's like the composition of boards and staffs, like is it racially, and, you know, diverse and other dimensions. And so that's something that we take very seriously as well. And when it comes to hiring, I think one of the things I've been really encouraged by is that we've really tried to walk the talk, when it comes to really diversifying our candidate pool. So we have folks on our HR team who do a fantastic job of that. And then we also post salaries. So that, you know, there's no inequity in terms of really, Yeah, wow. So and everyone essentially makes, you know, the same about if they're doing the same job. And so, there really isn't a case where, you know, there was an audit that somehow, you know, someone would be paid a lot more for doing the same role. We also redact names and last names and school names from resumes, during the interview process, implicit bias can be curbed a bit. And so, you know, it's not about oh, I went to this school to and now we're like, buddies, but really, can this person do the job, and we want the best person for the job, not the person that, you know, has a similar last name to us or went to a name brand school? Exactly. We may not even need a college degree for certain roles. And we don't want that to be something that we end up discriminating against either. And so I think, yeah, on those dimensions, I think it's been really neat to see, you know, we've kind of done internal innovation around how we do the work, that way we can also share with our clients like it can be done.


Jared Simmons  16:55

Right? Right. No, it just gives you a level of authenticity and integrity, in your dealings with your clients, that a lot of other insight driven firms don't have to wonder, you know, why companies don't ask the reflective question to the to their advisors, you know, oh, you need to be more diverse. how diverse is your organization?





Jared Simmons  17:21

it's amazing that space is, you know, it has become very crowded right now, in terms of a lot of very old, very established firms and companies and the like, getting into the diversity and inclusion space. And, yeah, you know, the the ability to have those conversations with integrity and authenticity, and persistency is just mathematically impossible for organizations that are doing that kind of advising right now, to be practicing what they preach.


Grace  17:54

Yeah. And also, like following the science on it, right? I feel like there is enough research out there around like what kinds of diversity trainings are more or less helpful to actually like moving the needle forward? And I think that there's a lot to be said about not just going with the flow, you know, ticking a box with this, but actually working with someone who has really dove into the research and knows, like, what works, and actually knows how to bring people along. So yeah, I agree. There's just so much out there right now, but but finding quality and people who walk, walk the talk is really important.


Jared Simmons  18:30

Yeah, it definitely is. You think about sort of the, the foundations, and you said, you know, you work with big and small, you know, household and the like, what are some of the the insights that that you've garnered from being able to look across how all these different foundations approach? innovation? How they leverage your data? You know, what are some of the, you know, you have to get into specifics, obviously, but but some of the things that you've seen in the in your industry?


Grace  19:04

Yeah, well, a lot of the larger foundations have learning and evaluation departments. So they actually have people on staff, whose role is to evaluate the efficacy of their programs, as well as ensure that the staff are kind of learning and growing and developing in their knowledge base. And so that's really encouraging. And that's obviously not something that all foundations can take on. But, you know, we tend to work with a lot of those kinds of departments. I think that like, it's interesting, because I think that there are a lot of actual innovations I can think of in the field, like, you know, so many things that we take for granted in life now, like the 911 system, or Sesame Street, or even like the Green Revolution. I mean, some of these are a little more controversial, but like, these are all funded by philanthropy, and so there's tremendous innovation there. We've been Watching, there's been a lot of focus, obviously, in the last year on racial justice and philanthropy, especially after the death of George Floyd. And there are foundations who are raising these huge bond offerings. And then, you know, giving the money away to social justice organizations. And that's sort of the confluence of the the way that the markets are now that it makes sense for them to do that. But that's relatively new and very exciting. I think that there's a lot more collaboration. So there are like donor collaboratives, there are people making what they call big bets. So really putting down like, big chunks of money to really move the needle on something. So all of those I think has been really exciting. At the same time, I would say, you know, back to my definition of like discovering what works. I mean, a lot of our research has uncovered that the practice of good grant making often does come down to things that aren't necessarily new or sexy. It's things like, as I mentioned, before listening really well. Right, it's, you know, having a real, honest, reflective approach of like, how much power as a donor, am I willing to give up and cede to the people that I'm trying to help? Because giving them unrestricted support, for instance, versus a project grant? You know, that might be a process of building trust. But, you know, it's sort of those quiet things, like, being are genuinely good partner, that may not be in the papers, but actually are what moves the work forward. And so I would say there's, you know, a lot of innovation in a sort of headlines perspective. But I think that sometimes it's the quiet work, you know, day in day out, that just makes a huge difference as well. It's sort of sort of a similar tension between like, big, you know, gifts, versus lots of individuals giving small gifts. You know, both are really important.


Jared Simmons  21:58

Right, right. I think that just kind of reflecting on, you know, I've spent some time in the nonprofit world. And thinking back on the different types of funding we had and received any amount of time and effort and energy we put into, you know, seeking that funding out. Yes. Relative to the amount of time effort we put into fulfilling the mission. Yes, was always something I had a certain level of discomfort about. And it was something I actually tried first working against in a couple of different ways. One was simplifying the approach our approach to our work. And the other was really developing a strategy around how we were going to acquire that funding, and then building our operation in a low risk way around that, yes, so that we could get low to mid every way, supported what we were planning to do. Yeah. And just kind of listening to you kind of unpack those things brought back a lot of a lot of memories, because I was new to the nonprofit space, and I got involved as everyone else, but just the ongoing education. Okay, well, you know, we need this, oh, we should go talk to these people. Yeah, well, you go talk to them, and then he's like, this person, and then you do this. And then you know, you got to cultivate the relationship. And yeah, these things, and all of that is important. But when you talk about the tension between things, to me, that is the tension that I was most for one time, and


Grace  23:33

yeah. So I mean, that is a real dynamic. And, you know, there are lots of horror stories out there, that folks working in nonprofits, you know, for any amount of time can tell about, like, they spent so much time on, you know, a grant report application only to have and then like lots of, you know, feedback, too, but then only to have it dinged. One of the things I found interesting is, this is not a widespread practice, but some funders are actually compensating nonprofits now, for the application time.


Jared Simmons  24:04

Now that's innovative.





Grace  24:07

And when it comes to reporting, so, you know, after a grant, you know, concludes, there's usually a report that's due, we definitely have funders who just have a phone conversation with us around that. And they recognize that they want to minimize the time we're spending they obviously, I mean, it's that whole let's smash the idea that there is a tension between stewardship and control of like, how the funds were spent, and like these really onerous kind of reporting requirements. Yeah. So it's a phone conversation. They often have said, Hey, if you have another report that you've already written for this work, or you want to just give us your annual report from last year. Yeah. And that is like music to our ears. It's like, Yes, you did your due diligence, and you know us and you know, that we spent this Money well, and thank you for not making this super onerous for us even after we've received the money.


Jared Simmons  25:06

Right? Oh, that's that I'm so glad to hear that. That's fantastic. And I would be particularly if I were involved in, you know, working with the CDP directly, I would be particularly concerned with being kind to you all given the place in the industry, you think


Grace  25:26

that I have seen something? it's just interesting is that like that funder, nonprofit dynamic? is such a powerful one, like our president has said publicly, many times, he's like, you would think of all people like he would be willing to, you know, say everything that needs to be said, when a funder was being unreasonable, but even he holds back? Because that is, and that's part of why we exist, right? It's just to really kind of chip away at that, so that there can be more, you know, listening to what nonprofits really need and less of a power dynamic, but it is such a strong dynamic that really can impede the work.


Jared Simmons  26:07

Yeah, yeah, you can especially, you know, there's, I think there's kind of an S curve, almost the size relative to, you know, distraction, you know, it's raising the money is a big distraction, because you had a small staff. And so it's a big percentage of your effort. And then you get, you know, you grow a little bit, and that goes down. But then there's a second sort of wave where you're so big now, you know, you require a different kind of support model. Yes. more funding, which means you have to change your approach in which means it goes back up again, as a distractor. Yes. And I do think there's something to be said and afraid to talk about this. for, you know, not seeing it as a distraction so much as a different way. different aspects of fulfilling the mission.


Grace  26:52

Yes, absolutely. It's bringing people along, helping them to see, you know, to join the work, right. That's also an important piece of it.


Jared Simmons  27:01

Exactly important to frame it that way, because it's another form of discovery that lets you help your organization get to where you want to go. So 111 last question. A great conversation. I always every time we talk, my brain just goes off in a lot of different directions. So I'm wondering if you would have any advice for for innovators out there? Yeah, I


Grace  27:27

think my advice would be, let's not innovate just for the sake of innovating, but there are, there's lots of well trod ground out there. And sometimes what I think of as innovative, there can actually be a really strong thread that ties to the past. Sure. So like I think about Hamilton the musical, right? Like it was so innovative, partially because it is rooted in like a true story from the past. But it's a totally new way of doing it new and not new, right, like and so I don't know, I just think that I take a lot of inspiration from that paradigm of like, when we need to find a solution. We're not alone. We don't need to feel like we need to come up with everything. Are there things that we can study from the past? People we can talk to who are experts who can inform? You know, and maybe it's something that meets in between? And so that's why innovation can be so squishy. But but it's also, you know, at the end of the day, again, discovering what works best.


Jared Simmons  28:31

Yes, I think that the element of newness and innovation, the fact that something doesn't have to be new to be innovative. Doesn't have to be novel, to be innovative. It's it's, it can be discovered in the present, it can be discovered in the distant past. It's just about bringing, bringing it to the table in a way that makes it effective and impactful for the world. Yeah. Chris, thank you so much for your time. It's great to see you and talk to you again. And I really appreciate you joining us. Yeah, thanks for having me. All right. Take care.


Jared Simmons  29:09

 We'd love to hear your thoughts about this week's show. You can drop us a line on Twitter at OUTLASTT LLC, or follow us on LinkedIn where we're OUTLAST Consulting. Until next time, keep innovating. Whatever that means.