Institutionalized Serendipity

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When concepts become wildly popular, some people fall prey to rhetorical excesses that are unintentionally humorous. The current administration’s love affair with social innovation and its desire to use funding to stimulate and “scale up” innovation have resulted in a juxtaposition of overheated language against administrative habits that can’t help but spark laughter. Here is one example of such excess from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which found a distinctively counterintuitive approach to supporting “serendipity.”

Serendipity, by the way, is defined as progress through the chance discovery, the unexpected linking together of innocuous, disconnected facts yielding intellectual and scientific advances. But not at USAID, where serendipity apparently can be planned, regimented, and controlled by bureaucratic process.

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In July, USAID announced the availability of $350,000 in grants—it was subsequently raised to a total of $1 million—for its “Development Innovation Ventures.” According to the USAID announcement, the purpose of DIV is “to institutionalize further in USAID the serendipitous process by which great ideas are conceptualized, developed, refined to meet real-world operational challenges, tested, and ultimately scaled up to change the world in fundamental ways.” Yes, the announcement says, “institutionalize . . . the serendipitous process.” Really. 

Institutionalized sounds innovative, it feels like a breakthrough. You can tell that the program is innovative, because the announcement says that DIV will “invest in a portfolio of projects at various stages of development”: ” (Stage 1) the development and experimentation needed to transition innovations from ideas to proof of concept; (Stage 2) the provision of the application at a larger scale with rigorous impact testing; and (Stage 3) transitioning innovations to scale through widespread adoption in one country and additional adoption in other countries.”

The practice of “Invest(ing) in a portfolioof projects” as opposed to making grants reflects the adoption of private sector business thinking that feels so innovative to government program administrators. 

DIV applicants can be nonprofits, foundations, U.S. and non-U.S. NGOs, as well as “U.S. and non-U.S. private businesses, business and trade associations, international organizations, U.S. and non-U.S. colleges and universities, civic groups, regional organizations, etc.” 

As USAID says, its list of potential “innovation partners” is “intentionally wide,” as serendipity might pop up anywhere. Applicants have to submit a pre-application concept paper, no longer than 5 pages, with the following serendipitous content:

 Cover Page/Introduction:

  • Name and address of organization
  • Type of organization (e.g., for-profit, non-profit, university, etc.)
  • Contact point (lead contact name; relevant telephone, and e-mail information). Regional or multi-country applications should provide the name of at least one local partner for each country targeted in the program
  • Names of other organizations (federal and non-federal as well as any other USAID offices) to whom you are/have submitted the application and/or are funding the proposed activity
  • Signature of authorized representative of the applicant

Technical Information:

  • Concise title and objective of proposed activity
  • Intended application Stage (Stage 1, Stage 2, or Stage 3)
  • Discussion of the objectives, the method of approach, the amount of effort to be employed, the anticipated results
  • Analysis of the expected impact during the Stage of funding that is being requested as well as when it scales. Concept papers that provide evidence to support this analysis with specific market segmentation will be looked upon favorably
  • Evaluation methodology

Supporting Information:

  • Brief biographical descriptions of key project personnel
  • Proposed estimated cost
  • Brief cost breakdown (e.g., salaries, travel, etc.)
  • Proposed amount of the applicant’s financial as well as in-kind participation (clearly identify which resources are cash and which are in-kind and provide information on the nature of the in-kind contributions)
  • Proposed amount of prospective or existing partner’s (or partners’) financial as well as in-kind participation
  • Proposed duration of the activity
  • Brief description of applicant’s, as well as prospective or existing partner’s (or partners’), previous work and experience
  • Project risks and description of proposed mitigation
  • Gender integration shall be address, see Section G. Other Considerations
  • Past performance references, see page 15
  • Full application should contain Budget information/ Standard Form 424, see page 12
  • Cost application

The 5-page concept paper is sufficient for Stage 1 applicants, but Stage 2 and Stage 3 applicants then have to submit 20-page applications with the following content:

  • Budget information (Standard Form SF-424 and supporting narrative; see No page limit
  • Budget narrative that justifies all costs based on fairness and reasonability as well as whether they match the program (Stage 1 applications only need a brief description of costs)  
  • Identification of intended project stage (Stage 1, Stage 2, or Stage 3)
  • Table of contents listing all page numbers and attachments
  • Executive summary
  • Goal and objectives
  • Background/problem statement
  • Explanation of partners and their expected roles, including partner and other resources brought to bear
  • Proposed interventions/technical approach
  • Expected impact with supporting analysis
  • Pricing, including component parts and analysis of elasticities, if applicable
  • Supply chain and distribution systems needed
  • Marketing Plan, included proposed scaling mechanism (public, private, civil, etc)
  • Duration of activity
  • Role of USAID (e.g., facilities, equipment, material, or personnel resources)
  • Detailed budget and financial plan with major line items, identification of funding source (i.e., by partner) for each, and a narrative description of what the resources will be used
  • Relevant organizational experiences of recipient and key partner organizations
  • High-level implementation schedule

There is no question that “institutionalized serendipity” constitutes a major advance in our nation’s promotion of innovation. This USAID program may actually be an innovation in being or becoming serendipitous.

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The word “serendipity” comes from the 16th century fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, coined by Horace Walpole in the 18th century because the heroes of the story “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” 

Serendipity is further defined as the process of making a fortunate accident, an unsought discovery. The late Isaac Asimov articulated the theory of serendipity as, “the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny.’”

Crime writer Lawrence Block defined serendipity as when you “Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for.” 

It’s good news that USAID has extended the deadline for serendipitous grant applications to January 15th. Let’s hope that USAID finds what it’s not looking for and that a nonprofit gets the contract to help them stumble into it.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    …and I found this article by searching “chance discovery” in Google’s news aggregator. How’s that for serendipity?

  • rick cohen

    Dear Inspector: Isn’t that the truth? My multiple incursions into Google news are generally serendipitous discoveries of news that might be potentially interesting to NPQ readers. Thanks for stumbling into us by chance.


  • Chuck Bell

    Institutionalize serendipity? One might argue to the contrary that the process of “reinventing government” has resulted in leaner, more narrowly focused federal agencies that have less organizational slack, which would seem to be a key facilitating factor for serendipity and accidental discovery.

    So federal agencies could be on a track that makes them more likely to “deinstitutionalize serendipity” than institutionalize it. Budget constraints and a narrowing of organizational missions causes them to be more transactional than transformational. Creative workers may be among the first to be shed as unemployed free agents to community settings. (And like earlier forms of deinstitutionalization, little provision may be made for nurturing and caring for these sensitive individuals…)

    And as for the great RFP, I’m reminded of the Dylan lyric “…if my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put by head in a guillotine.” In this case, if your thought dreams can be seen, the grants manager will put them through an administrative routine…