An Unfinished Beginning

December 1, 2020  • Institute Staff

For many Americans, it’s clear that the old way of solving big problems with individual actors does not work—and that the topics at the forefront of social dialogue around the economy, democracy, technology, and culture will require innovative approaches.

A new organization, Unfinished, provides that new approach. Unfinished focuses on connecting people and institutions to solve challenging social issues at scale. The organization is premised on the idea that asking questions and beginning inclusive conversations is critical to making progress—and that by tapping into wide-ranging communities, creative media, and new technology, it can provoke ideas, elevate unheard voices, and create greater impact. Across multiple projects—from Unfinished Network, which curates and amplifies stories and conversations and creates pathways for civic engagement; to Unfinished Labs, which builds technology to solve social impact problems; to Unfinished Questions, which launched to encourage dialogue and promote trust—Unfinished is taking on urgent problems and creating spaces for new voices, fresh partnerships, and novel discoveries.

Recently, the organization launched Unfinished Live—a four-episode digital event series that uses questions as a starting point to tackle challenging issues and then to ask, “What’s possible now?” The series was made possible in part by the Aspen Institute, which has served as a co-producer through its Public Programs unit and provided vital support for the enterprise. Hosted by Baratunde Thurston, a comedian, writer, and cultural critic who helped launch The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, the series uses art, innovative formats, and unexpected conversations with experts and everyday people to drive generative questions and capture new ideas in refreshing ways.

The series’ unique approach was evident from its first episode, which aired at the end of October. Focusing on issues of the economy and justice, the episode explored questions like, “Can we design a better economy?” and “Will capitalism survive?” And while it included experts and prominent individuals like filmmaker Abigail Disney, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, and former presidential candidate Julián Castro, it also lifted up the voices of workers and everyday Americans who are often left out and left behind. The series continued with episodes focused on Democracy and Voice, Technology and Humanity, and Culture and Change.

Unfinished is the brainchild of Frank McCourt, a civic entrepreneur focused on enterprises that align action and purpose as a way to create sustainable value and social impact. The Institute is a founding member, along with Ashoka, the Shed, For Freedoms, Georgetown University, PolicyLink, the Ford Foundation, Imperative 21, the Max Steinbeck Charitable Trust, McCourt and Mil M2. By forging connections among diverse members and expansive networks, Unfinished hopes to present completely new ideas and initiatives in interesting and compelling ways. “Precisely because we live in a divided country where much progress is needed,” says Institute CEO Dan Porterfield, “the language and spirit of this project are premised on the notion that we are called to join the unfinished effort to build a ‘more perfect union.’”

The organization’s name carries echoes of historic efforts to bridge divides and find new paths forward. On a brisk autumn day in 1863, amid America’s Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the Gettysburg battlefield. He praised the soldiers who had hallowed the ground with their sacrifice; he called for a “new birth of freedom”; and he implored the citizens of the warring nation to commit themselves to an ongoing civic experiment. “It is for us,” he said, “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Unfinished isn’t putting itself forward as an organization that has all the answers. “We’re in a time of great challenge and concern and trepidation, but also opportunity for growth and positive change,” McCourt says. “We need to be thoughtful, patient, humble, and open-minded. That leads to one conclusion: we need to listen and learn.” Recently, Unfinished joined with the artist-led organization For Freedoms on a campaign to put creative voices at the center of national and international conversations, generating big questions and displaying them in public places on billboards in all 50 states. “Our billboard campaign is the great equalizer for accessing art,” says Claudia Peña, the executive director of For Freedoms. “There’s no fee to pay, no intimidating door to walk through, no exclusive club focused on inviting VIPs. You just need to be on a road to somewhere.”

The organization’s partners are excited about what the approach can achieve. “I have been drawn to it in a way that is almost magnetic,” says Angela Glover Blackwell, a nationally recognized activist and writer, whose organization, PolicyLink, advances racial and economic equity, and who is part of the Unfinished Council. “The idea of being able to link together multiple networks connecting organizations and individuals who are ready to do something transformative—that’s what’s called for at a moment that’s so pregnant with change.”