My failed Gates Foundation proposal

Since deciding to shut down my company Idealistics, I’ve been kicking around various ideas of what to do next. One thing I won’t be doing is implementing my rejected Gates Foundation Grand Challenges data interoperability proposal.

Contests are a popular, yet controversial approach to soliciting new ideas to social problems. Personally I’ve never been much of a fan of contests, preferring to fund my ideas the old fashioned way, by selling.

However, I’ve never had much luck with contests either, which likely suggests more sour grapes than thoughtful dissent of the contest approach. The most compelling argument against contests is that contests waste the time of would be entrepreneurs or nonprofits, making them spend considerable time filling out losing applications.

The common counter argument is that contests are beneficial for the losers in that they get to flesh out their ideas.

In my experience, I neither feel like my time was wasted nor terribly well spent. My time wasn’t wasted in that my opportunity cost was Netflix. On the other hand, while I know what I likely won’t be pursuing, I’m not sure I’m much closer to an answer as to what I ought to do either.

Results of course will vary, but in my experience, the process was neither terribly offensive nor rewarding.

The failed concept

Contests tend to be pretty good about publishing winning ideas. Reviewing a winning entry can be helpful as applicants try to gear their concepts to past winners. While more abundant in the world however, examples of losing projects are almost no where to be seen. In a moment of extreme transparency and boredom, I decided to share my losing idea. You can download it here.

The Gates Foundation Grand Challenges data interoperability challenge was to propose a product or initiative to increase data interoperability between social sector organizations or individuals. My proposal attempted to tackle the problem of non-profits sharing data with foundations.

The gist of my proposal was to build an open-source middleware web-based software solution that would allow non-profits to submit their outcomes data in raw format, in one place, that would then translate and summarize that data for multiple funders.

Essentially, the idea would be to allow non-profits to submit their data once, but have their data transmitted to multiple funders, the way those funders need their data sliced.

By submitting raw data, foundations could bypass the summary statistics shenanigans that earn some development officers six figure salaries, while easing the burden of filling out multiple applications to any number of funding entities.

Admittedly, this idea is totally not sexy and pretty darn boring (obviously the Gates reviewers agreed!). But I do believe it’s a necessary piece of plumbing. Not only are non-profits’ applications to funders arduous to put together, they are full of tons of nonsense. Such a solution would address both issues.

At the time I submitted my proposal, I had not yet attended the excellent retreat on data and philanthropy put on by the Heron Foundation, where I had the opportunity to learn about Coop Metrics.

Coop Metrics is a technology company that aggregates various types of industry data. They got their start focusing on aggregating food coop data nationally, and are now moving into multiple areas, including philanthropy. I’m excited about Coop’s entry into the social sector because they already have a proven, scaled solution, that can adapt nicely into the social sector. I’m hopeful that Coop, or a company like them, will solve this important problem.

I sure won’t be 🙂