Want to Shake Up a Stodgy Field? Hand the Checkbook Over to a Total Outsider

Long ago, I worked in the rarefied field of international security and spent my days thinking about nuclear weapons, arms control treaties and related esoterica. That world is more cloistered than most, populated by academic scholars and think tank wonks who tend to keep to themselves, toiling away on issues that most Americans stopped thinking about when the Berlin Wall came down. 

It's a field that could use some shaking up, especially since the threat of nuclear materials inflicting mass casualties is actually higher now than during the Cold War days, according to many experts. 

So we were excited this spring to hear that a group of five funders was setting out to "disrupt" the nuclear security arena by introducing ideas and insights from other fields.

Related: Who's Betting $2 Million That New Ideas Can Curb Nukes?

But we wondered: Just how easily can the peace and security community learn new tricks?

That remains to be seen, but we've now learned who the funders have hired to teach this crowd new tricks using that two million dollars as treats: A long-time consultant with zero background in nuclear security. Good choice!

Actually, the story is much better than that. Erika Gregory, the woman chosen to lead the "Nuclear Innovation Collaborative," has focused her consulting specifically on social innovation, as the founder and CEO of a San Francisco outfit called Collective Invention. 

The press release on the appointment says that Gregory has spent the past nine years "leading social innovation efforts in education, community and economic development, and sustainability" and "been instrumental in the development of tools and methodologies that support social innovation."

I'd love to be a fly on the wall when Gregory brings a fancy Power Point to a place like the Council on Foreign Relations, where sixty-something former ambassadors still don't know what a Tweet is.

I'm kidding, but only sort of. We're at an interesting moment in the nonprofit world, when some fields have already been greatly shaken up by people like Gregory, with their talk of "systems thinking" and "immersive futures," and other fields have barely been touched by such approaches.

It's not easy for funders to fess up to the fact that they've been shoveling grants into one of the backwaters, and even harder for them to collaborate on a solution. So kudos to the five funders involved in this effort—Carnegie, Hewlett, MacArthur Foundation, Ploughshares, and the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

Exactly what the Nuclear Innovative Collaborative will do is still being worked out. But one way the work has been described is like this:

Drawing on successful approaches from venture capital, technology, social media, and other arenas, the NIC will make experimental investments designed to build a new generation of leaders and influencers committed to the peace and security of a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.

"New generation" strikes me as the key term there. Maybe one strategy will be to simply bypass the generation who still knows what SALT II was, or who can identify Paul Nitze, and cultivate the kind of younger folks who are busy reinventing the rest of society. 

One last thing about Erika Gregory, lest you're not sold on her credentials as a total outsider: Her only degree is a BFA in drama from the Julliard School. 

We don't see a lot of BFAs wondering around places like the Arms Control Association. This should be interesting.