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Where in the world do your ideas come from?

By Karabi Acharya, ScD (she/her)
February 19, 2021

Sunlight limning the Earth's horizon against the backdrop of space

Reprinted from GrantCraft.

If I told you that I read about a new approach to reducing violence, would you want me to forward the article? What if I had a conversation with someone who created a program that bridged social divides? Would you be interested in an introduction? What if I knew an entire group of people who had interesting and impactful ideas on how to address climate change, reduce inequities, help people live longer, or overcome COVID-19. Would you want to join that group?

I’m guessing the answer would probably be yes to one or all of these questions. Wouldn’t hurt, right? In fact, it could have a huge impact in your own work by applying this new approach to the communities you serve, or sparking a related idea that could be transformative.

Now, would it matter if I told you these people, programs, and groups were from a different country? From Denmark or Brazil or Rwanda?

At first you might say, “No, it doesn’t matter,” because you believe, like me, that good ideas have no borders.

But now ask yourself, how often do you look to other countries for solutions or inspiration?

If the answer is “not often,” don’t feel bad. You’re not alone.

In a survey of foundations located in the U.S. conducted by Candid in early 2020, 73 percent of respondents reported that their domestic grantmaking was rarely or not at all informed or inspired by ideas and solutions from around the globe and beyond U.S. borders.

As director of Global Ideas for U.S. Solutions at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I can say I wasn't surprised by that result. I've learned over the last several years, speaking with many curious, well-intentioned folks, that there are reasons—perceived and real—that can make learning from abroad something people don't readily seek out in their work

In an effort to help others discover the value of global learning, we created a simple 12-question quiz that enables people to reflect both on how they may (or may not) experience the rest of the world and on how this may influence their own thinking.

It’s called the Blue Marble Quiz, inspired by the ways in which astronauts have had their perspectives profoundly changed after seeing the world differently from space.

While not a scientific survey, the questions in this quiz are meant to encourage reflection and are informed by resources and research that speak to the benefits of looking abroad for inspiration, ideas, and solutions.

The quiz also addresses some of the factors that may influence why we do or don’t look to the rest of the world for inspiration. From the practical--you haven’t been exposed to many people or places from other countries--to the psychological, like the Country of Origin Effect or the Overview Effect.

While we call it a quiz, in reality there are no right or wrong answers, just questions that we hope will help people reflect on how they see and learn from the world.

The Candid survey also revealed an opportunity to increase specific global learning practices within philanthropy. For example, only 8 percent of respondents said they have a global network of people they regularly tap into, and just 12 percent said they encouraged staff to review media and content from other countries.

Recognizing that both foundations and their staff may benefit from specific resources and recommendations, we’ve also included a page of resources at the end of the quiz so people can learn more about how we all see the world and the research and resources behind each question.

I lead a team that is charged with searching beyond our geographic borders for ideas and solutions that could be adapted to the U.S. to improve health and wellbeing. We are fortunate to have a dedicated team to explore far and wide regarding issues important to us. For example, we can look to Malawi to learn about advancing food justice or study what New Zealand is doing to pioneer a comprehensive approach to wellbeing.

Appreciating the many demands on your time and attention, let us assure you global learning doesn’t have to be a full-time job, does not require that you physically travel, and doesn’t necessitate making international grants.

Here are three simple ways to get started without ever leaving your desk.

  1. Have 5 minutes? Take the Blue Marble quiz and share it with others.
  2. Have 15 minutes? Take the Blue Marble quiz and then spend a few minutes checking out the resources. Watch a video, read a piece of research, play with a tool, or even bookmark the page for checking out later.
  3. Have an hour? Join the next conversation in RWJF’s Reimagined in America: What Can the World Teach Us about Building a Culture of Health webinar series or explore past episodes to find more inspiration and learn from abroad.

As an organization, if you’d like to dive in a little deeper, you can take the quiz with a group and host a discussion to reflect on your different experiences and influences.

And, of course, you can reach out to our Global Ideas for U.S. Solutions team. We’d be happy to discuss our approach to global learning and how it contributes to our RWJF’s mission.

It goes without saying that we are living through unprecedented times with challenges and inequities that can be overwhelming and seem insurmountable.

But what if I told you that Rwanda could teach us how to heal from racial injustice or that within Europe you could find the key to tackling vaccine hesitancy? Or that in some other faraway country lies the solution you’ve been looking to bring to your community?

It could all start by taking a simple quiz and then seeing where your learning journey might take you next.

Tags: Foundations and grantmaking; Social sector