15 May 2019

Making Innovation become Social Change: A role – and a new profile – for Foundations in the next few years

In the first decade of this century many European foundations, among them the Italians, saw social innovation as the added value they could provide to their communities. The process included a well-structured planning stage, small-scale trials, a rigorous evaluation of results, and, finally, proposals to offer experimental solutions to the appropriate public bodies, who then had to take care of the expansion of the solution.

However, the aftermath of the 2008 crisis made it difficult to achieve the final phase of this process. This was due to public bodies having a clear difficulty in adopting, on a large scale, innovations that bring about efficiency and effectiveness in the medium term, but which imply additional actions and costs in the short term.

Foundations themselves are therefore beginning to understand the importance of taking a further step forward in actively working to turn innovation into change. In other words, not only putting down roots and improving services for citizens, but also taking responsibility for the development and dissemination phases too.


Implementing change: is the task feasible?

But is taking charge of the permanent supply of innovative services a feasible task for foundations?

The answer is yes, but only provided that foundations play their part in full: mobilising citizens, the non-profit sector and the public administration in a united effort. The first two would provide the initial momentum of ideas, energy and also demands for rights that only individuals and associations can offer. In turn, public bodies would find ways for developing large scale feasibility and sustainability strategies for the innovations, pursuing an efficient and new use (with the same, or similar, budget) of public resources, which would be reduced but still considerable.

Such a role, though, demands that foundations take on, at times, uncharacteristic “behaviour” for institutions often perceived in the public eye as serious and staid.


What profile will foundations have in the near future?


A radical approach means going straight to the heart of the problem, in other words to the root-cause. It implies being deeply engaged in those sectors or processes where the challenges of social and economic development are taking place today, or where inefficient efforts which are slowing down this development are hiding. I’m thinking, for example, of innovations in education, strengthening processes of technological development, to the start-up or consolidation of social enterprises, to social cohesion. This doesn’t mean that foundations should refuse to respond to the day by day needs of their communities, or to emergencies: if a slow public response creates inefficiency in the system, it makes sense to intervene, but with a clear strategy in mind.



It is essential to really understand your own territory and communities in order to act on the causes of problems. It is important to study, analyse data, anticipate trends and study in depth the best international practices. How tempting it is for foundation officers to simply replicate projects and approaches carried out over the years! We must never stop learning and sharing ideas: the national and European associations of foundations are settings where we can see that national and international openness are on-going sources of improvement. Maybe those who depict Europe as an organisation of greedy bureaucrats, rather than an open field where citizens from different countries can move and share ideas freely, have lost interest in challenging themselves and improving.



“Brazenness” is essential for mobilising new economic resources, which are needed in particular to activate the initial phase of innovative projects.

It is important to put yourself out there and get involved in the field. I’m thinking of the involvement of local enterprises, not just through the co-funding of projects within some corporate social responsibility programme, but also through company welfare practices (the subject of recent research by Fondazione CRC[1]), that may interact in constructive ways with foundation initiatives, for example the  development of social enterprises.

I would also like to mention two other very relevant approaches, without elaborating too much: firstly, social impact investments, where the blending of funding can be trialled; and secondly the elaboration of projects for European Commission grants, where foundations are required to play not only the role of supporters, but also the role of leaders and promoters of large partnerships.



Change, whether social, cultural, educational or in the field of technological transfer, is a long and windy road, requiring patience, perseverance and strong motivation. And it certainly takes time.  Change is like the work of a farmer. If foundations carry out their roles fully, the plants of social cohesion and development will grow abundantly. And considering that each initiative that actively involves citizens has the great intrinsic value of mobilising energy and conscience, regardless of the concrete results gained, other plants will germinate from the original one. This is something that all our countries really need.


Published on “Vita – Non Profit” in February 2019.


[1] “Impresa possibile – Welfare aziendale in provincia di Cuneo” – http://www.fondazionecrc.it/index.php/analisi-e-ricerche/quaderni/288-quaderno-33


Andrea Silvestri

Managing Director, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Cuneo