Updated: May 29, 2020
When I volunteered for committees or charitable events, I often meet great people with good intentions. They have amazing hearts and the willingness to serve others. In many cases, we work very hard to help people by attending fundraising events, fixing someone's house, or serving food at a homeless shelter. These feel-good activities allow me to feel fulfilled because I did a good deed. Once, I returned to help my church to serve at a homeless shelter, only to realize that many of the people receiving food were the same people that were there last year. I began to wonder, have we substantially improved the lives of the people we served? Will those we help move to a self-sustaining path of achieving a more fulfilling life that creates shared benefits with society? I decided I wanted to find a way that allows charitable organizations to make long-term improvements in people's lives. Therefore, I performed some research and came across the concepts of Social Innovation. I want to share the profound secrets I learned and how it can help nonprofits reimagine the way they serve communities.
What is Social Innovation? The best definition I have encountered comes from instructors at Standard University's Center for Social Innovation. Here, Soule, Malhotra, and Clavier defined Social Innovation as "…the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress." Firsts, social refers to communities or society. Second, when we talk about social innovation, we are trying to generate solutions to problems for those communities that government or commercial organizations are unable to serve sufficiently, or they have negatively impacted those communities. Then, there is the process of developing solutions. The process involves collaborative sets of stakeholders and innovators using methods and techniques to resolve social issues. Finally, effective social innovation must improve the way it benefits a local or global community. So, if you or your community service organizations are investing limited time and money into helping segments of society; then, the highest social value you can provide is to do the most good, for the most in need, with the resources at your disposal. If this is your goal; then, social innovation is the only way you can optimize all these social constraints in sustainable ways.
Is Social Innovation for your Charitable Organization? Oracle NetSuite performed a study of over 300 nonprofit organizations and published the results in "Connecting Dollars to Outcomes: How to Measure Outcomes That Deliver Mission Impact in Nonprofits." In the Oracle NetSuite report, one of the participants stated, "Nonprofits have a responsibility to their boards, founders, community, etc. to measure and communicate outcomes. How do you know you are making a difference if there is no outcome measurement?" When philanthropic foundations decide to donate to other charitable organizations, they give to organizations that make sustainable impacts on the communities they serve. A well defined and executed social innovation process increases the probability of making measurable impacts on under-resourced communities. So, if you want to make a positive difference in people's lives, then social innovation is for your organization.
Why should you care? When your charitable organizations implement a social innovation process; then, demonstrating and quantifying these impacts makes it easier for Foundations to justify funding your organization's efforts. And, if your organization raises funds for charitable organizations; then, giving to an organization that provides sustainable changes to people's lives gives a level of confidence that your donors' money make a genuine difference in under-resourced communities. In this article, we want to address the primary stages of a social innovation process that charitable organizations can implement to ensure they are making measurable impacts.
How can you make the most of your giving? If you care enough to do the best you can with the limits you have, then considering applying social innovation to your community service efforts. As an example, the Young Foundation has established a process that incorporates some fundamental principles for implementing a social innovation process. As the Young Foundation explains in its blog, "How to set up a process of social innovation," the common theme is the need to solve complex social issues with collaborative involvement from those in need and any stakeholders. We want to share a social innovation process based on the best practices that combine social systems analysis and innovative design thinking methods. In future articles, we will explore the stages of this process.