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Little Bets Can Have Big Impact in Corporate Philanthropy

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Anne Wintroub and Nicole Anderson

Philanthropies could learn a thing or two from comedian Chris Rock.

Rock spends months grinding through hundreds — if not thousands — of ideas from which only few will emerge as jokes for a one-hour comedy special. Those initial ideas mark a series of “little bets,” according to author Paul Sims.

In his book "Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries," Sims maintains that these little bets -- experimental, iterative, trial-and-error approaches -- gradually build up to a breakthrough, and often achieve more success than far larger ones.

He offers some compelling examples. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t set out to develop an algorithm that radically changed how information is searched on the Internet, but to address a much smaller problem of how to prioritize library searches online for the Stanford Digital Library Project. Beethoven developed a musical style distinct from Mozart’s only after he continuously experimented and wrote hundreds of new compositions. Similarly, Jeff Bezos believes so deeply in experimentation that Amazon’s employees are encouraged to develop new ideas with the understanding that many concepts may go down “blind alleys.”

We’ve seen this little bets approach achieve big results in business, science, technology and even entertainment, so why not philanthropy? What if funders focused on enabling and accelerating these little bets?

According to Sims, this experimental approach requires the ability to fail quickly, learn fast, try imperfect ideas, and engage in highly immersed observation (e.g. carefully noting what does and does not work).

That is the idea behind the AT&T Aspire Accelerator, a six-month program designed to accelerate startup organizations -– both for- and non-profit -- with the potential to impact AT&T Aspire’s goals of helping students succeed, strengthening schools and communities, and preparing learners for employment. These organizations are our “little bets.”

Participants receive a financial investment, access to expertise, services and relationships tailored to their organization, and expert mentors from the education and technology ecosystems.

The program is based on trial and error, innovation and re-innovation. As Sims puts it, little bets require being “unshackled by constraints of conventional planning, analytical thinking, and linear problem solving that our educational system overemphasizes at the expense of creativity.”  This means greater risk-taking, experimentation and failure.

Examples of these little bets include CommonLit, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving adolescent literacy through high-quality, free curriculum and advanced analytics. Through the support of the accelerator program, CommonLit developed a new suite of tools to help teachers track progress in reading and personalize instruction to better address the unique needs of individual students. These tools were offered for free to teachers and parents this September, helping to level the playing field for all students.

Another example is Couragion, the company behind an app that inspires underrepresented youth to pursue STEM careers via diverse video role models, games, quizzes and personalized learning plans. Through the accelerator program, Couragion was able to expand its technical platform support from Apple iOS to responsive Web, thereby making its app accessible to the 50 million youth that do not have access to iPads.

2015 accelerator participant GradGuru is a nonprofit whose software service and mobile app guides community college students to take actions and engage in behaviors that lead to higher and faster completion rates. While in the program they partnered with five new colleges with a total of over 125,000 enrolled students.

So much of traditional philanthropy involves making big bets to solve complex problems like poverty, climate change or infectious diseases. Yet, as Sims notes in his book:

“The top-down, procedural planning approach is highly dependent on making predictions about the future based on past experience. … The fact is that much of what we would like to be able to predict is unpredictable. … In this era of ever-accelerating change, being able to create, navigate amid uncertainty, and adapt using an experimental approach will increasingly be a vital advantage.”

Accelerators are now commonplace for many technology companies, but this model of incubating little bets is ripe for philanthropies as well. By making little bets, philanthropies can fail quickly and learn fast and they can inspire and empower what just may be the most creative and ground breaking approaches to solving our greatest challenges.

Image credit: Pixabay

Anne Wintroub is director of Social Innovation for the AT&T Foundation.

Nicole Anderson is assistant vice president of Social Innovation and president of the AT&T Foundation. 

3p Contributor

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