November 12, 2012; Source: Greater Good (Arabella Advisors Blog)

Many philanthropic advisors are working with donors to do creative things with their money, but it is rare that the charitable and philanthropic sector finds out from the advisors themselves what’s working or not working, partly because most philanthropic advisors are highly competitive for-profit entities dealing with a narrow range of high-net worth donors willing to pay a premium for advice.

But the well respected Arabella Advisors is discussing what it is thinking and learning. Writer Steve Sampson has posted some thoughts about “the environments in which ideas flourish,” drawn from Arabella staff discussions of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He boils the key lessons down to three concepts:

  1. “Continual exploration of the ‘adjacent possible,’” which seems to be a “map” of the various ways that “the present can reinvent itself.” Sampson notes, “Social entrepreneurs need a clear understanding of the adjacent possible if they want innovative ideas to have a chance to take root.”
  2. “Liquid networks,” the kinds of networks among organizations that allow for news flows of information and lessons without being either too lightweight (like networks of Facebook friends) or too chaotic.
  3. “‘Slow hunches’ colliding,” which Sampson describes as “half-baked hunches that turn into crucial insights through time, toil, and ‘collision’ with other hunches,” or in other words, recognizing that “big ideas often need time to percolate, as well as input from thought partners, colleagues, and even critics.”

All well and good, but Sampson and his Arabella colleagues need to go to the next step. Beyond summarizing a book like Johnson’s, they should examine Arabella’s own experience and provide examples to underscore these points, or to raise questions, or to add new dimensions to the thought process. Arabella co-founder Eric Kessler has convened interesting discussions in the past (we remember a very useful one he did online a couple of years ago with Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities concerning President Obama’s thinking about capping the charitable tax deduction) and Arabella has recruited one of the nation’s top nonprofit thinkers, Lucy Bernholz, to join the firm and continue her Woody Allen-inspired Philanthropy 2173 blog.

But beyond the individual and very insightful observations of Arabella staff such as Sampson, Kessler, and Bernholz, the charitable and philanthropic sectors would be much benefitted by information about what Arabella is learning institutionally from its own practice. Hopefully the Arabella blog will be a venue for lots of insights into Arabella’s own experience and knowledge generation.—Rick Cohen