Research and development: An essential that charities should but don’t have

I have long admired companies who are thoughtful and consistent in their approach to research and development. We never hear much about efforts that are tried and scrapped, only those that make it to market. I love business innovations and am waiting for the one that allows me to physically be in two places at the same time. You might get a good chuckle from imagining a device that would achieve this, but I’m convinced some brainy inventor and his or her team is out there somewhere, expending tremendous amounts of energy trying to figure it out. It must be amazing to have resources to invest in creating new inventions or improving current systems.

In the human services space, it is less about making better widgets and more about improving systems and processes that help people live their best lives. So many of the systems that we have in place are outdated. This problem is especially evident for people working to improve the lives of children. The systems are splintered and un-optimized. As a society, we’ve chosen to invest our charitable dollars principally in the provision of direct services. These investments are often at the expense of investments in building the capacity of our leaders to reengineer our systems and processes to improve direct service delivery. Because of this structure, I fear we are missing the forest for the trees.

Oftentimes, when nonprofits talk about innovation, they have to do it with little to no resources. Their tanks are on empty. What compounds the innovation stall is that most nonprofit investors don’t want to invest in leadership and processes that improve systems over time. There is limited appetite for this kind of “patient capital.” That’s unfortunate.

With a bit more discipline, ingenuity, and investment, we can help more people more efficiently. Research and development should be an essential tool to the future of the human services sector. We have to commit to making the case: Investing here will scale our ability to change lives.

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