Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Social Innovation: Harnessing What Works to Address Critical National Challenges

I've been hearing a lot about the Social Innovation Fund lately, an element of the Serve America Act. A May 6th White House blog post by Jesse Lee, What is the Social Innovation Fund? says that the Fund will, "identify the most promising, results-oriented non-profit programs and expand their reach throughout the country."

To learn more about the Fund, I attended a panel called Social Innovation: Harnessing What Works to Address Critical National Challenges at the 2009 National Conference on Volunteering and Service.

The discussion focused less on what the Fund will do, and more on best practices it should adopt, and challenges it will face once it is up and running.

Michele Jolin, Senior Advisor for Social Innovation for the Domestic Policy Council at The White House was the panel moderator. If you would like to watch the video from the session, click on this link for the Social Innovation Forum. You will have to fill out a form, as if you were registering for a live webcast, to access the video.

Cheryl Dorsey, the President of Echoing Green, a nonprofit that provides seed funding and support to social entrepreneurs, talked about how providing capital for social innovation can:
  • Provide incentive for individual and collective engagement around social problems.
  • Engage people who are closest to the problem.
  • Create a competitive marketplace that showcases a variety of ideas.
  • Give voice to new and alternative actors.
Some factors she feels can support social innovations' success are:
  • Engaging the crowd and using the wisdom of the crowds to facilitate innovations coming through the pipeline.
  • Trusting in the importance of new ideas.
  • Accepting and championing failure and the learning that comes from failure.
  • Using open source innovation platforms (she mentioned something about Kellogg, that I didn't quite catch--maybe the Kellogg Innovation Network?).
  • Developing social innovation leaders.
Sarah Di Troia, Partner at New Profit, a nonprofit venture philanthropy company that provides multi-year financial and strategic support to social entrepreneurs, talked about the importance of funding not only program innovation, but also organizational innovation. She emphasized that when great programs are housed in bad organizations they die.

She encouraged focusing on what facilitates the building of strong organizations that can house successful programs, and "raising up patterns" of what is working operationally for organizations, and disseminating that information.

Steve Goldsmith, Vice Chair for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Daniel Paul Professor of Government at Harvard's University's Kennedy School of Government, and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program, addressed some of the challenges that the Social Innovation Fund will face:
  • Political economy: In politics, people get funding through manipulating relationships and protecting their turf.
  • Barriers to entry: The government prescribes a lot of requirements (i.e. teaching credentials, MSW's)
  • Curse of professionalism: A bunch of smart people get in a room and decide that they have a solution to a problem when the answer actually lies somewhere between that room and the people affected by the problem.
He would like to see the Fund support new models that disrupt the system, focus on results, and challenge other aspects of how government works. He also noted the need for an innovative way to capture ideas from the bottom up, and cited Apps for Democracy as an example.

Check out what the bloggers listed below have to say about the Social Innovation Fund, and tell the White House what you think about the idea on the Corporation for National and Community Service website.Full disclosure: I host Echoing Green's Be Bold podcast and have done social media consulting with them.

Cross-posted from
Top photo: Michele Jolin and Steve Goldsmith. Second photo: Cheryl Dorsey, Sarah Di Triola, and Ian Hardman (President of Management Leadership for Tomorrow).

Bookmark and Share


  1. Britt,

    Great info on White House Social Innovation good-doings. It is hard, even when looped in to it all, to get all the facts down. I sent this on to a bunch of friends who are skeptical of Obama's moves. I think you are equally as pumped as I am to see terms like social innovation and entrepreneurship frequently playing through East Wing wavelengths!

    Samantha Given-Dennis

  2. Hi Samantha,

    I'm so glad you liked the post. It was exciting to be at the session.



If you are having trouble commenting, please let me know.