Global platform launched to promote positive plagiarism among foundations

A group of leading foundations and NGOs, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Oxfam and the Skoll Foundation have launched a peer-to-peer platform to make solving pressing social issues easier. 

Sphaera (pronounced s’faira) is a peer-to-peer online platform that will collate the knowledge of funders and practitioners working to solve social and environmental issues around the world.

Organisations will share their evidence-based solutions and research within the portal, which will then repurpose the information into tools, processes and frameworks that can be used by others. In theory a solution that helps fishermen log their catch could be repurposed for healthcare workers to track and improve treatment of contagious disease. 

Former president of Ecotrust, the Portland-based conservation organisation which has developed Sphaera, Astrid Scholz said: "Where governments and corporations fail to address the urgent problems of the 21st century, social entrepreneurs step in to develop innovative solutions. Collectively, we are sitting on a wealth of practical solutions and the know-how for adapting them to new places and problems.

"Sphaera makes it easy to discover, share and remix solutions. We put the collective, practical knowledge of what works – in health, finance, conservation, education, in every sector relevant to wellbeing – at the fingertips of practitioners everywhere. Our hope is that together we are better, faster, and more effective in tackling the urgent problems of our time."

Arthur Wood, founding partner of Total Impact Capital and a global leader in social finance, said: “With the birth of cloud technology we have seen a plethora of models changing the way we use, share, purchase and allocate resources. From AirBNB to Uber, folks are now asking why this trend has had zero impact in Philanthropy.”

Wood explained that Sphaera is “designed to liberate the silos of individual project knowledge and to leverage that expertise and knowledge to create scale and collaboration across the philanthropic landscape... Or simply stated, how can a great idea in one stovepipe be shared to the benefit of all?”. 

The cloud-based software platform was officially launched on the West coast of the US yesterday with seed funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, and Ecotrust – and with participation from Oxfam America, Mercy Corps, the Island Institute, Grameen Foundation, Forest Trends, Blue Solutions, and Development Alternatives. Sphaera is currently processing the first set of solutions from its beta customers, which will form the roots of an expanding database and network of social and environmental change makers that will always be publicly available. Sphaera aims to share the initial lessons learned from these early adopters at the SOCAP conference in San Francisco this October. 

Sphaera is currently operating through a subsidiary LLC (Limited Liability Company in the US) of Ecotrust, where it was incubated. Later this year it will incorporate as a B-Corp upon closing of a round of financing.

The greater collaboration, the more value accrues to social good.

The way in which Sphaera is structured differentiates it from other similar platforms, which have failed to achieve the scale of impact intended. Firstly, by launching in collaboration with a number of leading foundations, the platform already has a wealth of content in its database and already has customers using the service. Secondly, because it has been financed through equity Programme-Related Investments (PRIs), the value of the level of collaboration created by the platform, accrues to the foundations, rather than going to an external IT company for example. 

This financial structure was developed in the US to enable foundations to use commercial finance (such as loans and equity investments) to “provide capital at below-market rates to further a charitable purpose”. It means that the foundations become owners of the platform – as the platform grows and more collaboration occurs as a result of this, the value of it as a product increases. 

This addresses one of the key criticisms of the foundation world – that there is not enough collaboration. Earlier this year, Jake Hayman wrote that “foundations fail to share insight” and “know so much more than they ever let on”. This model provides an incentive for programme officers and those working at all levels in foundations to collaborate with other organisations and share learning – it encourages positive plagiarism. 

Wood concluded: “As a B Corp whose business case calls for a doubling of the impact that we all can create, this solution is complemented by a sustainable finance proposal structured in a way to ensure that the value of this collaboration and scale goes to the social sector. The greater collaboration, the more value accrues to social good."


Photo credit: John LeGear