After reflecting on Part 1 of our book review – How to Build a (Social) Revolution: Hacks from Tech Innovators, I came across one of my favorite quotes by Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This is a revolutionary idea and one that the technology innovators embraced fully, but it’s still challenging for the social sector. When I give speeches, I often ask the audience – what issues do you care about? I get passionate and excited responses surrounding issues close to their hearts. Then, I ask – how are we doing on these issues? For the most part, the passion changes to worry, and I get responses like “not so good.” With some notable exceptions, such as smoking and drunk driving, we are not seeing great progress on social issues. In The Innovators, Isaacson examines how innovation, impact and sustainability affected the technology revolution. Here, let’s take a look at their role in the social sector.
As we learned in Part 1, innovation is not developing ideas from scratch, but improving existing ideas to create a breakthrough approach. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Clayton Christensen takes on the evolving notion of “disruptive innovation” (a term he first coined in 1995) and deconstructs why not all breakthroughs are disruptive. In the piece, he says disruptive innovation is the guiding star for many start-ups, but it has also been a victim of its own success. Similarly, I’d argue that the social sector has a love affair with innovation to the detriment of real social change. There is a lot of passion for causes, and many people believe the solution is to start a new nonprofit. We have almost 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States with new ones starting everyday. In fact, research shows that the growth rate of nonprofits is higher than that of small businesses. Complicating matters, existing nonprofits often start new programs without applying best practices, all in the name of being an “innovator.” I’d like to see the social sector borrow from the tech innovators by engaging in true innovation, not merely creating new ventures for innovation’s sake.
Impact is the social sector’s new guiding star. For decades, all nonprofits could do was count the number of people served and tell stories about their impact. Now, to create the greatest impact, our job is to take these programs to scale and make them available to as many people as possible. With access to research at our fingertips, we have the ability to optimize program models, such as early childhood programs or home visitations. However, research doesn’t always help us identify the best program model(s) in every situation. In that case, I’d encourage the social sector to move toward coopetition to more quickly prototype and determine the optimal program structures. In Part 1, we discussed how technology innovators used “commons-based peer production,” a voluntary endeavor to develop best and promising practices faster. In the social sector, healthcare follows this practice through peer-review journals, and it has led to serious gains in many public health issues. If we engaged in coopetition and fully utilized the research available, we’d continue to improve each model to make it more impactful and cost-efficient.
Finally, let’s discuss sustainability. The truth is we have limited dollars in the social sector. The United States spends almost 2 percent of its GDP on charitable endeavors, which is high compared to many other countries. To maximize impact, we have to spend these dollars wisely and invest in proven practices so we can take them to scale to the greatest number of people possible and truly innovate only when necessary. This requires a more disciplined approach to our resource allocation for both the nonprofit as well as the funder. It also includes looking at new and different ways of funding the social sector beyond charitable dollars, including impact investing and social enterprise. We, like the technology innovators, need to pair our visionaries with business masterminds to create high-impact and high-performance organizations that are driven toward results that will encourage greater investment in social solutions.
In many ways, the social sector is fighting the existing reality, but we need to be more disciplined in our efforts. To graduate to a new reality, we must focus instead on impact, scale and sustainability. If you have ideas to help focus on these areas we’d love to hear from you. At Social Impact Architects, we strive to “accelerate the speed of social change” by developing new ways of working that can be implemented across the social sector. Throughout 2014 and 2015, we have been working with clients on this new reality and have produced some meaningful results that brings together all these concepts in an easy-to-understand framework. In Part 3, coming in early 2016, we will share this new framework for your feedback and continuous improvement. If we adopt this new reality, we will kick off a social revolution – one focused on creating results for the benefit of us all.