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Social Innovation


Social innovation is all about change, let’s take a moment to define each. Social innovation creates novel solutions to pressing social problems. The goal in social innovation is to brainstorm solutions that are more effective, efficient, just, or sustainable than current solutions. Leaders trigger social change through nontraditional channels when no clear solution is available. In other words – they improvise. Social innovation is a fundamentally different approach to change. What distinguishes social innovation is that it can create greater value for society as a whole. The hallmark of social innovation is coalescing diverse stakeholders: community individuals and leaders, nonprofits organizations, and institutions from different sectors to address complex, often systemic, social challenges.


When it comes to social change, context is key. Formidable challenges and environments resistant to change create singular opportunities for unconventional solutions. Social innovation by definition is volatile and cannot be effectively analyzed through the standard logic models or summative and formative evaluation. In fact, such detailed, non-dynamic models can squelch creativity and limit flexibility. To promote true innovation, it is critical that nonprofit organizations are committed to creating an environment of continuous learning and visionary thinking. Leaders must proactively explore real time questions, data, and feedback so that strategies can be adjusted as the program progresses. Course corrections are expected, perfection and stability are not.


Social innovation is driven by the exchange of ideas and values. Paradigm shifts involving roles and relationships, and the integration of private capital with public and philanthropic support must be leveraged. Social innovation thrives within a framework of partnerships that scale impact and expand reach. Addressing large-scale social problems requires detailed analysis and a broad, network-oriented perspective.


According to a study done by the Stanford Social Innovation Review of 12 high-impact nonprofits focused on social innovation, all 12 organizations employed a policy advocacy component to achieve large-scale social change. Successfully bridging the divide between service and advocacy allowed these organizations to gain credibility, expand reach, and create innovative, large scale, lasting social change.


To create social innovation nonprofit organizations must collaborate with multiple partners in each of the sectors. Partners need to be open to testing new strategies and evaluation approaches. Answers evolve overtime, so flexibility is critical. Leaders who are willing to take risks, evaluate, adapt, and course correct drive social innovation and ultimately drive greater and more sustainable social change. Social innovation takes time, usually an average of 20 years, resources, investment from both government and a visionary philanthropist willing to invest more than $10M over the life of the initiative, multiple stakeholders and sectors and a well-defined public advocacy initiative to succeed. It requires a heavy investment of time and resources, but if successful, social innovation has the power to transform organizations, communities, economies, and society as a whole.


The Six Impact Dimensions (Stanford Center for Social Innovation) developed a helpful model to reference when defining Social Innovation.




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