True to its name, Unorthodox Philanthropy got started with an out-of-the-ordinary proposition.
In 2010, on a crowdsourcing website called Innocentive, the funder announced that it was seeking “novel, unorthodox opportunities for philanthropic investment with the potential to generate extraordinary returns to society.” It promised a prize of at least $10,000 to the best idea.
Nearly 300 people or organizations submitted proposals. The winner was GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that had just been formed by four graduate students to give direct cash grants to the very poor. It was awarded the $10,000 prize,and a $100,000 grant.
That first grant to GiveDirectly was “a watershed moment,” says Paul Niehaus, one of the founders, because it signalled that thoughtful donors would embrace the idea of giving money, with no strings attached, to the poor. Since then, GiveDirectly has distributed about $65m in unconditional cash transfers to poor people in east Africa. [It’s my favorite charity, as I’ve written here and here.]
Unorthodox Philanthropy is the inspiration of Mark Lampert, who is the founder and president of BVF Partners, a private investment firm in San Francisco that specializes in biotechnology companies. Lampert, who is 57, has been investing since 1993, and he sees some parallels between venture investing and philanthropy.
At BVF, he says, “we look for interesting, undiscovered companies and we give them money and we try to help them. A little bit of money married to a really big idea can have a dramatic impact.” His hope in philanthropy is to likewise unearth new and exciting ideas that deserve funding.
On its website, Unorthodox Philanthropy says:
We tend to be contrarians, believing that the opportunities with the greatest potential exist where others aren’t looking. Otherwise, we are sector- and geography-agnostic.
Unorthodox Philanthropy believes great opportunities should drive our funding decisions, not a predefined funding agenda. We seek to foster a system that enables great ideas to flow upwards toward capital, rather than allocating funding downwards from specific issues or causes.
In this regard, Unorthodox Philanthropy differs radically from most foundations, which typically identify and attack specific problems or serve local geographies. The very biggest staffed foundations like to devise grand strategies to curb climate change, or challenge inequality, or promote resilient cities. Some of those approaches work, many don’t, and one problem with philanthropy is that only occasionally do we learn which did which. (Here’s an exception, a smart look back at a seven-year, $32m initiative to improve Detroit’s schools that failed to deliver.) Family foundations are also sector- or cause-specific, as a rule. What made Unorthodox Philanthropy so, er, unorthodox? Continue reading