In a special plenary session today, innovation – along with its inherent challenges and risks – was on the agenda as delegates debated what true innovation means and what it entails for philanthropy. HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands underlined in her keynote address philanthropy’s unique position and potential when it comes to innovation. Ruby Johnson, Co-Director of FRIDA, and Bharat Mehta, Chief Executive of the Trust for London, offered their perspectives and experience.

Faced by daunting societal issues and a fast changing environment, philanthropy is compelled to reflect on its capabilities. In partnership with civil society, government and the corporate world, philanthropic organisations have an opportunity to contribute to systemic change, but they will have to reorient themselves on their role, position and skills. What makes for truly effective philanthropy? How can foundations invigorate themselves and innovate, by adapting their organisations, developing new working methods, and attracting talent?

HRH Princess Laurentien emphasised ‘the power of letting go’ of the need for control and predictability as the key to unlocking true innovation. As the world becomes more and more chaotic, she sees a movement toward more control, more accountability, and more measurement. The linear model of conceiving, testing then launching an initiative is outdated. In the rapidly-changing world we live in, we need to ‘have the courage to scale up when projects are not yet fully developed.’

She distilled the three capabilities she thinks philanthropy needs to innovate to meet today’s challenges: equality, courage and bringing the outside in by listening to other voices. A foundation should take an approach to grantees that says, ‘It’s not about what I want, it’s about what you need.’

Ms Johnson provided an excellent example of innovating grantmaking processes to bring new voices and perspectives to the table. Her organisation employs participatory grantmaking by having grant applicants themselves decide which applicants get funded. This release of power changes completely the funder-grantee dynamic. Ms Johnson acknowledged that this may not be so easy for a lot of philanthropic organisations, but she encouraged them to try, to experience for themselves the transformative power of this approach.

When talking about change and innovation, Mr Mehta said that even though his foundation has a long tradition, ‘we like to think we are light on our feet. But we have a lot to learn. Sometimes these traditions can hold you back.’ Regarding the problems facing Europe, he said, ‘This is a big moment for Europe. This is the moment that we all need to change.’

Through a question and answer session with the audience moderated by Jo Andrews, outgoing Director of Ariadne the issue of foundation’s weaknesses came up. Answers that popped up were accountability, transparency and diversity. The panel also identified professional skills needed in the philanthropic field, including:

  • The need to train in using data and analysis
  • Flexibility and being open to change
  • Being open to experimentation and failure
  • Being creative and eager to co-create
  • Critical thinking
  • Humility

This plenary session also featured an interactive multimedia performance by Amsterdam-based PIPS:lab ( which saw delegates creating collective paintings with light.