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Forcing Social Innovation

The White House has created an Office of Social Innovation, and a $50 million Social Innovation Fund, to “identify the most promising, results-oriented non-profit programs and expand their reach throughout the country.” As the White House blog explained in early July:

The White House has created an Office of Social Innovation, and a $50 million Social Innovation Fund, to “identify the most promising, results-oriented non-profit programs and expand their reach throughout the country.” As the White House blog explained in early July:

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“This is a dramatically different way for the government to do business–and it reflects the President’s new governing approach–finding and
scaling the best social innovations; partnering with those who are
leading change in their communities; and creating a policy environment
for all these innovations to thrive.”

I wonder if this ‘dramatically different way for the government to do business’ is really unique, or even dramatically different enough, that it will drive the kinds of innovative solutions and approaches to addressing social issues that our society desperately needs. I am not so sure.

The concept of social innovation may be new to our government, but it is far from new. There are already hundreds (thousands!) of nonprofits, foundations, businesses and individuals pursuing innovative new ways of addressing social issues, as well as dozens of colleges and universities offering programs focused on educating and training people in this arena, and countless conferences, media, and blogs analyzing and commenting on their efforts. There are some very innovative things that have come out of this movement already, like the applications of microfinancing that have helped create and shape economic opportunities around the globe. But there is also the risk, now that the concept has gained some mainstream attention, that the rate of innovation will slow–or stop.

My fear is that the Social Innovation Fund will support the same old innovations–the same groups, the same individuals – who have helped to get us to this point. My fear is that the Social Innovation Fund won’t really drive new innovation, but instead will simply add more support to existing projects, or push funding to people who are already a part of this movement and contributing to its success.

I don’t want to suggest that the groups, individuals and projects that have already established themselves in the social innovation space aren’t deserving of, or in need of, recognition and support. They are deserving, and recognition from the White House for their important work is important. But, there is more that the Social Innovation Fund could do.

There are opportunities for the Social Innovation Fund to help root out new innovations and foster different thinking. Instead of promoting projects that already exist, the Social Innovation Fund can create new opportunities and help to introduce people that are not well known, or even known at all. Perhaps most importantly, the Social Innovation Fund has the potential to turn everyday citizens into social innovators, to identify issues that are in desperate need of new thinking and challenge our communities to help solve them. Put another way, they can force social innovation to happen.

How do you force social innovation?

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  • You provide guidance, so that the energy and commitment around social innovation is focused on issues or towards challenges that are most critical. There are too many issues and needs, the social innovation community will never stay focused–but the White House can decide where the funding will have the greatest impact. Pick an issue, one per year (or two, or three – but keep it limited) and direct all the funding and support to address those challenges.
  • You seek out and invite people to participate, instead of letting the audience define itself. There are plenty of people who have self-identified and committed themselves to this work–and we know they are willing to be involved already. Truly new ideas and approaches will come from people who aren’t currently involved, especially people who have never seen themselves as social entrepreneurs or innovators at all. Go out and find people, draft them, take people whose interests lie elsewhere and direct them to re-apply their expertise and perspectives towards these issues.
  • You keep pushing and demanding for more and better solutions, never satisfied that an idea has been fully explored, the right voices have been found, and the issues fully addressed. It has become all too easy, too common for successful organizations to fall into a pattern, to get lazy, to focus on maintaining their work instead of innovating continuously and looking for new solutions (serving the cause instead of solving the cause). Instead of funding organizations, fund projects and ideas. Fund people. Use the money to make things happen, not support things that are already happening.

The Office of Social Innovation will succeed. The money that has been committed to supporting different approaches and ideas will have an impact. New innovations–or at least innovations that were not known widely–will gain some new traction because of this effort. Will it go far enough? Will the Office of Social Innovation be able to “identify the most promising, results-oriented non-profit programs and expand their reach throughout the country” or will they end up helping to elevate organizations that have already proven their worth, but haven’t demonstrated (yet, perhaps) their ability to go further?

My hope is they force social innovation, as perhaps only they can, and we can look back on the other side of this wonderful experiment with a whole new set of opportunities to explore–and fight about how to support.

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