The latest VISTA Viewfinder is about social innovation. It’s a term you may have heard before but what does that word mean to you and your work?
Who are Social Innovators?
“People who strive to solve social problems at the root-cause/system level…using innovative, sustainable, scalable, measurable approaches”
What do they mean to me?
When we talk about social innovators we often focus on the product. And while social innovators produce very cool programs they may not be applicable to your VISTA project.
The real lesson of social innovators is not what they have created (though that’s what made them successful), it is how they think. Social innovation is really not a new way of doing, it’s a new approach to how we respond to the world’s most pressing problems. This new approach to thinking about and responding to community needs is something every VISTA can apply to their project.
So how do social innovators differ from the rest of us?
1) Ask Questions
”When I was young I used to volunteer in a soup kitchen and they thought I was wonderful. When I asked why there were soup kitchens, they thought I was a radical.”
As Paul Wellstone points out in this quote, asking questions is a radical process. It is often the most difficult part of the job. Having the answers is easy Hans-Georg Gamer points out in Truth and Method. It’s in answering them that we really learn:
“To someone who engages in dialogue only to prove himself right and not gain insight asking questions will indeed seem easier then answering them… Discourse that is intended to reveal something requires that the thing be broken open by the question”
Social innovation is always driven by a question not an invention. Florence Nightingale journeyed to to ask why the soldiers there were dying without basic medical attention. Geoffrey Canada asked why students were failing in school. Kathryn Hall-Trujillo asked why the infant mortality rate was so low for African American mothers. None of them had a light bulb go off in their head at first, they just had an unanswered question keeping them up at night.
VISTAs can shed new light on their project by not asking their service site what they do but asking them why they do it. As Dan Izzo, a Detroit entrepreneur points out:
“If your business idea is the answer, my question to you is ‘what is the f#@%ing question?'”
Don’t be content with the answers or the best practices. Start digging further into the issue you work with. Start asking questions.
2) Don’t Be Afraid to Say It’ s Not Working
Social innovators are defined by their willingness to say “this isn’t working!” While the nonprofit industry has become better at evaluating their programs, I find organizations rarely use these evaluations to change the way they do things. When I once asked a organization why they were evaluating their summer institute they responded that it was to “prove to their donors the effectiveness of their program.”
We’ve all heard of Edison’s failures to produce the lightbulb. Invention requires trial and error and it requires you to admit you’ve made an error. As VISTAS, we all have to report on our efforts and show results but never be afraid to say there is room for improvement. Never be afraid to be honest and say “This isn’t working!”
3) Focus on Impact
…he asked himself a series of questions, and gradually his thinking took shape.
Who did he want to help? He wanted to help poor children.
What was his goal for them? He wanted them to be able to grow into fully functioning participants in mainstream American middle-class life.
What did they need to accomplish that? They had to survive adolescence, graduate from high school, get into college, and graduate from college.
And what did he have to provide in order to help them accomplish that?
Well that is where the questions got interesting and difficult to answer”
This description of Geoffrey Canada thought process in Paul Tough’s Whatever it Takes shows a key shift in thinking. Most people see a problem and tackle it by creating program but notice these questions are not “What program do I want to create?” or “Where will I get funding?” Each of these questions ask: “What is the impact I want to have?”
Social innovators are not mission-driven they are impact-driven. Programs can change, priorities can shift, but social innovators need to see results. Before you set off to create a new program or work on an existing one ask yourself what impact you want to have and what you have to do to get that impact.
Florence Nightengale knew she needed to show her impact so she teamed up with a leading statistician to produce (at her own expense) a statistical analysis of death and sickness in the army to show her techniques were working. Nightingale invented the pie chart to easily show her successes and framed those charts for her office so that the world could see the impact of her work.
Social innovators create programs that have extraordinary impact because they focus on impact from start to finish. Impact isn’t just something that shows up in an evaluation, it something you plan for, invent for, and live for.
Why should I think like a social innovator?
Social innovation might be a popular term but social innovators are usually unpopular people at first. Asking questions, admitting error, relentlessly pursing impact can alienate supporters if not approached in the right way.
Remember at it’s root social innovation is about solving problems. It isn’t about dismantling systems or telling people their wrong. Every VISTA joined because they saw problems in their country and they wanted to be part of the solution. Thinking like a social innovator can help you find the root causes of those problems and come up with radical and effective solutions.