The Rita Allen Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., was established in 1953 and supports pioneering biomedical research, innovative approaches to fostering informed civic engagement, and efforts to strengthen connections between science and society. Here, Elizabeth Good Christopherson, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Rita Allen Foundation, discusses the Foundation’s model of a “philanthropic lab,” designed to uncover unexpected, potentially transformative ideas in science and civil society at their earliest stages.
The Rita Allen Foundation has supported early-stage ideas with a big impact. What have you learned about innovation?
Throughout the Foundation’s work to support innovative solutions in science and civil society, we have learned the importance of risk-taking and flexible support in pursuit of new ideas. Through our grantmaking, we invest in earlycareer scientists, enabling them to follow their curiosity to conduct pioneering research, and we invest in social entrepreneurs testing tools for building more inclusive and informed civic engagement.
To have a lasting positive impact, we use a venture philanthropy approach that invests in people and organizations primed to take bold steps into the unknown. Our grants provide risk capital that allow our partners to build new knowledge and networks around complex problems, even when the outcome is uncertain
For example, Rita Allen Foundation Scholar Luciano Marraffini has spent his career investigating how bacteria fend off invading viruses. As a postdoctoral researcher, Marraffini published landmark research demonstrating how bacterial immune systems called CRISPR work—they disable viruses by slicing their DNA. He quickly recognized CRISPR’s potential as a tool for biotechnology and medicine, and many other scientists have built on his fundamental discovery to realize this potential.
Today, scientists are testing CRISPR applications with the potential to relieve devastating genetic conditions like Huntington’s Disease, treat bacterial and viral infections, and engineer the human immune system to fight cancer. One treatment for sickle cell disease, which causes excruciating pain and shortens lives by decades, is being tested in patients for the first time.
In our results-focused world, it is helpful to remember that the greatest leaps forward rely on collaboration, on knowledge built over time by many, and by steps taken, with curiosity, into the unknown.
The Rita Allen Foundation is a national foundation with collaborators around the country. How does its location in New Jersey contribute to its work?
New Jersey has a rich culture of scientific excellence and civic engagement, shaped by one of the most diverse populations in the nation. It attracts people with initiative and curiosity from around the world some 22 percent of New Jerseyans were born outside of the United States. There is a special New Jersey energy, fueled by inclusion and commitment to building a better shared future, that infuses everything we do.
There is a world of expertise and inspiration all around us. We can step out the door to find brilliant colleagues at Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton Theological Seminary, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and throughout the thriving tech, financial, and pharmaceutical sectors, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the New Jersey Tech Council, and many other outstanding organizations are just down the road.
The Rita Allen Foundation’s Board of Directors includes prominent scholars and leaders from New Jersey, including the Honorable Thomas H. Kean, former Governor of New Jersey; Sam Wang, professor of neuroscience at Princeton University; and Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study. A number of New Jersey scientists, organizations and initiatives have been among our grant partners, spurring us to dream and think big. Among these collaborations was joint work with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers following Hurricane Sandy. Together we partnered to develop The Disaster Philanthropy Playbook— helping communities around the country take a proactive approach to preparing for and recovering from disasters.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs focused on the public good?
Listen with intent. The power of “we” is about strengthening agency among others and bringing many diverse voices to the design and decision table. Lasting change requires us to build on shared values and co-create a shared vision. It requires time, learning, and hard work by many. In our experience, positive change begins with reaching out across our differences to build relationships.