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Learning From Abroad: Philanthropy’s Role in Spreading Social Innovation

November 20, 2017

Four_idea_lightbulbsDid you know the toothbrush was first invented in China, or that the idea for kindergarten originated in Germany? The United States has benefited from great ideas from other countries for years. As grantmakers — whether a national philanthropy or a local funder — we can learn so much by embracing the notion that good ideas have no borders.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), I direct an effort explicitly tasked with searching the globe for ideas with the potential to improve health and health care in the U.S. And as the foundation continues on its ambitious journey to build a national Culture of Health, my colleagues and I are casting a wide net with our own learning efforts to bring the best ideas and solutions forward.

Finding promising ideas from abroad isn't always easy. It requires time and commitment. Making global ideas accessible and adaptable so that the communities we serve can implement them successfully can be challenging. But I am optimistic. Our efforts to learn from abroad have led us to the work of many organizations and experts who are advancing ideas in areas as diverse as creating a new workforce to support frail elders, building new partnerships to disrupt community violence, and bringing disengaged youth back into the fold.

Our journey also has led us to efforts like ChangeX that are laser-focused on transforming communities with great ideas and social innovations.

Launched in Ireland in 2015, ChangeX International has inspired and supported hundreds of community-led innovations around the world, providing a roadmap for leaders to  drive change in their own neighborhoods. The ChangeX platform finds and packages proven ideas for local adaptation. For instance, Welcome Dinner is a program where residents of a community seek out newly settled refugees and immigrants to share a meal. Because of ChangeX, the idea, which originated in Sweden, has spread quickly throughout Europe and is now helping build social cohesion in communities in the U.S. Men's Shed, an Australian innovation, has become a global movement in ten countries that makes it possible for retired men to come together in dedicated community spaces to find meaning, new skillsets, and friendship. GirlTrek has turned a low-cost, high-impact solution — walking — into a health movement that activates thousands of black women to be change makers.

These are just a few of the many innovations ChangeX is spreading around the world.

With RWJF's support, last year ChangeX launched its first U.S. expansion in Minnesota, and to date more than a hundred local projects are up and running across the state. What's interesting to me is that some of the proven and promising solutions on the ChangeX platform emerged directly from local needs and local values. For example, Sambusa Sunday started in Minneapolis when local Somalis wanted to thank the many residents who supported them during a recent spike in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. Featuring free chai tea and Somali pastries called sambusas, these public events bring together neighbors of all backgrounds and nationalities. We're also finding that these innovations are easily adapted for use in other communities, provided local leaders are given the right resources and tools to move them forward.

ChangeX, and adapting global ideas to uniquely local circumstances, sometimes feels a bit like gardening: You take a cutting from a healthy, vibrant plant; root it; and transplant it in another locale, where, with proper care, support, and cultivation, it too can flourish.

As we — funders and grantmakers — look for ways to build stronger, more vibrant communities here in the U.S., we should explore what other countries are doing well. Platforms like ChangeX are a great place to start.

I invite you to join me and my colleagues at RWJF on this global learning journey. What spaces are you currently exploring that could be informed by looking outside our borders? What global efforts do you see holding promise for supporting U.S. communities?

Great ideas are out there. Let's work together to find them!

Headshot_karabi_acharyaKarabi Acharya directs the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s strategies for global learning as it identifies best practices in other countries and adapts them to improve the social determinants of health in communities in the United States. 

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