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March 18, 2014

In a recent talk at the Foundation Impact Research Group (FIRG), the president of the Commonwealth FundDavid Blumenthal, mentioned that one of the new efforts he has introduced since taking over the Fund in 2013 is “a surveillance process for breakthrough opportunities.” He was quick to point out that this isn’t some kind of philanthropic Skunk Works (Lockheed-Martin’s elite innovation team, famous for both brilliance and eccentricity). It’s just an ongoing, organized effort to scan the landscape for ideas that might someday significantly alter some part of the U.S. health care equation. You can see a video of Dr. Blumenthal’s FIRG talk here.

Deliberate, organized “surveillance” efforts of this kind are still relatively rare in philanthropy. One institution that has done it for more than a decade — and even created a dedicated team responsible for exploring and supporting what they call “disruptive” new ideas — is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I recently took a look at the first ten years of RWJ’s “Pioneer Team” and some of the quirky, embryonic ideas they’ve invested in. The resulting article will appear in the Foundation’s next biennial anthology of research on its programs. But the online version is available now.

It turns out that “breakthrough” potential is often in the eye of the beholder. (It’s a lot easier to recognize a truly disruptive innovation after it has changed the world.) Even some members of the Pioneer team disagree about which of its grantees and projects would qualify as possibly revolutionary, as opposed to merely important and unprecedented.

It also can be lonely work, exploring the unmapped frontiers of a field. Every other part of the RWJF organization is dedicated to long-term programs that concentrate on well-established problems and strategies. Staff members on those teams aren’t especially open to radically new ideas that may spring up out of nowhere ­— nor, arguably, should they be most of the time. So when the Pioneer team discovers a really exciting new-new thing, even one they believe in strongly, they may have a hard time finding a receptive audience for it among their colleagues.

Still, in the view of Foundation CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, regularly scanning the horizons is a critical part of philanthropy, even when it doesn’t lead directly to a new Foundation initiative. Sometimes, just keeping an eye trained on the wilderness beyond an institution’s settled programs and commitments can be a source of intellectual stimulation, a prod to creativity, and a way of keeping strategic options open. “We have to learn deeply in certain content areas,” Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey told me. “But we also need to be constantly scanning the horizon, in this age when information is being created so quickly, and when there are so many fields relevant to improving health and health care for all Americans. When you look at the work of philanthropy, and what makes philanthropy able to do really great things, the key factor is understanding the fields that are out there, and how they are changing and intersecting and re-forming.”

Tony Proscio