September 5, 2009

How the government can help spur social innovation

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White House push for social innovation from JD Lasica on Vimeo.

By JD Lasica

At the Social Capital Markets conference this week, one highlight came in the opening keynote and panel discussion with Sonal Shah, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, who spoke about the federal government’s support for innovative, bottom-up social and community programs. Above is a 2 1/2-minute snippet. Some highlights of her talk:

• She talked about allocating resources toward high-impact models through the Social Innovation Fund that was part of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. The Foundation Center has the details.

• She underscored the need for working across sectors, with the federal government playing a role to bring together nonprofits, the private sector and government agencies.

• Shah also pointed to the need to identify tools to help foster a culture of social innovation. (Perhaps Socialbrite can play a role here.)

I had my hand raised throughout the Q&A session but wasn’t called on. I would have said: Many people in the audience no doubt have some ideas on how to move this agenda of social innovation forward. Aside from the handful of foundations and nonprofits in contact with your office, how can we do so? What’s the best public forum? Where should these conversations be taking place?

By Beth Kanter

I was fortunate to have a press pass to SoCap09 this week, which got me a front row seat for the keynote address by Sonal Shah and panel discussion with Andrew Wolk, Root Cause; Vanessa Kirsch, New Profit; and Carla Javits, REDF, moderated by Jeff Bradach, Bridgespan Group.

Sonal Shah gave an overview of the goals and strategies for the Office of Social Innovation. Nathaniel Whittemore of, who was sitting next to me, has a great write up of the keynote. Marco Puccia has notes here as well.

I live tweeted the key points.  The main themes that resonated for me:

  • Don’t get distracted: Sonal Shah warned, “Don’t think about us as the ‘office that does cool stuff.’  She was warning against shiny object syndrome and used a different “s” word.
  • Government and feedback loops – how can they take the field’s learnings and incorporate in theirs?
  • Measurement is the major theme as the sector grows up. There was an emphasis on finding consistent or standardized quantitative benchmarks.
  • However, there was also a plea not to make evaluation painful, collecting huges amount of data and not using it to improve a program.
  • A different spin on the concept of mistakes and failure: “Mistakes should be considered failures if they fail to correct the problem. And if the correction creates new problems.”
  • The need for some experimentation before a program or project rolls out or scales.  There is something beneath the language of “what works” that can kill innovation.
  • That it is about effectiveness and quality, not growth

I learned a new term, “Hockey Stick Returns,” that colleague Nedra defined for me. The context is that many projects don’t offer this.

I attended a panel called “The Future of Social Innovation on the Web” This all-guy panel was facilitated by Dennis Whittle, Global Giving and featured Premal Shah,; Jonathan Greenblatt, Our Good Works;
Steve Newcomb, Virgance; and Ben Rattray, I tweeted some of the key points.

After the session,  after waiting an hour for Premal Shah to be available for a quick interview, he graciously shared his thoughts on what Web 3.0 looks like as did Dennis Whittle. I also interviewed Shara Karasic , who was in the audience. Premal talked about the need for creating magic for the users and building in workflow software that was facilitated relationship building through the ladder of engagement.

Dennis introduced each panelist with a personal story of how they met. I loved what he said about  Premal Shah — that he wanted to apply for a job at Kiva after hearing him speak.   He set up the panel with a definition of Web 3.0 — it wasn’t about the real-time web or semantic web. He defined it this way: “If Web 1.0 is about one-way communication, and web 2.0 is about two-way communication, Web 3.0 is about building a bridge between two-way online communication and offline actions and impact.”

He asked each of the panelists to describe where they think the field is now.  Ben Rattray said: “The vast majority of social good platforms have failed because they have modeled social good platforms on commercial applications.  We assumed that if we  created a generic platform that  people would start their own actions. They don’t. It isn’t as easy to throw up an action on the web as it is to throw up a video. We faced challenges. The vision is to provide a platform for collective social action. It is so easy for people who care about an issue — it is easy to connect.   There must be catalytic organizations. If you build the platform, will spontaneous organizing happen?”  No! Synthesis of grassroots organization to channel social change.

He asked each of the panelists to discuss what they were most proud of in their project’s achievements. Jonathan Greenblatt of All for Good talked about the work they were doing to bring volunteer opportunities to Americans who want to serve. He also spoke about his accomplishments with Ethos Water.

Premal Shah talked about the importance of the user experience to create a compelling reason to give:

“Kiva is at the intersection of money and meaning. There is going to be a socially responsible investment. There is a third axis — it is not about ROI or social impact. It’s the user experience that drives adoption. Never underestimate something that is fun and has short feedback loops. If we want people to engage, it has to be easy, fun, and addictive. Return on experience versus investment.

Dennis also asked panelists to share some of the criticisms they’ve received along the way.

Several themes that came out in the discussion:

  • The line between for-profit and nonprofit
  • Balance between cooperation and competition
  • Are there too many social entrepreneurs? If your idea isn’t high quality, why not work with someone else instead?
  • Don’t give up!
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