For most organizations, innovation planning has a heavily internal focus. But for The Rhode Island Foundation, a nonprofit leader of philanthropic ventures in the state, a recent push for innovation started with a clarion call outward.
For two days in September 2012, the foundation hosted Make It Happen Rhode Island – a warp-speed incubator that summoned the talents of more than 300 private-sector and community leaders. Jessica David, the foundation’s vice president of strategy and public affairs, said the idea for the two-day event arose because community groups found themselves doing many hours of thinking and planning but ended up frustrated by lack of action to improve Rhode Island.
“We felt we had the opportunity to bring together leaders from the private sector to generate specific action steps,” David said. “It wasn’t about writing a grand vision – it was about trying to get something started and build from that momentum.”
What had started out as a small affair soon ballooned to a full house at the R.I. Convention Center. Ten facilitators led groups of 30 to 60 participants in discussions organized by topic. “There were no experts, presentations or panels. We wanted everyone to come and bring ideas,” David said.
Foundation President and CEO Neil D. Steinberg said in addition to providing valuable business connections to forum participants, the foundation gave $1 million in seed money to 18 groups to assist ideas and projects rooted in the two-day event.
Steinberg said that the foundation aimed to include a variety of organizations, and that participants were pleased with the networking. David and Steinberg said it was inspirational to see such a collaborative spirit in action.
In the spirit of keeping things concrete and actionable, graphic recorders in each room sketched out minutes on large sheets of white paper, capturing “the general themes and each individual, specific idea,” David said.
The event also leaned heavily on social media and staff note-takers to get as much information down as possible, which was published in a transparent, comprehensive report. “Our hope was that someone would read the report and get excited about, say, idea No. 263, and go for it,” David said. “We wanted to be the spark, but not the gatekeepers.”
At the event’s end, more than 400 ideas were generated by the forum, many of which are in operational stages now. “We’ve been pleased with how things are going,” said David. “I think it was a really important experience. When you ask the community [for ideas], they respond. There are certainly challenges that we’re all facing, but there’s a lot of talent and creativity here. Amazing things can happen when you put a bunch of smart, passionate people in a room together.” •