Missing Voices: How Can We Get More ‘Doers’ to the Social Innovation Table?

Business DoersA number of reports have crossed my desk recently about how to accelerate and advance social innovation. There are reports on collective impact, convenings on impact investing, and conferences about measuring outcomes to name just a few.  

These gatherings and reports come from credible sources, and so their recommendations influence the agendas of leaders, funders, and investors. Their data and findings help to define what people think is important. They drive strategies, dollars and operations, and in doing so shape the direction of social innovation.  

In many of these reports I notice a big imbalance in representation between those I’ll call the “doers” and those who consult, advise and fund the action. For example, on a back of the envelope analysis of four reports by leading social impact experts and consulting firms, just 24% of those surveyed/convened were doers who directly provide programs, services and interventions. The remaining 76% were assorted funders, consultants, intermediaries, advisors, and donors.  In one report the doers accounted for a mere 3%. These percentages resonate with my observations at a variety of gatherings over recent years, and they raise concern.   

There will be consequences if our dialogue about social impact becomes insular and too far removed from the front lines. We need to hear from the doers who intimately understand the demanding reality of working to create positive change, and are closer to the people and causes we care about. Doing so will only lead to better outcomes.   

We will get better solutions. 

The doers are more connected to the clients and customers that are critical to understand, and whose needs must be met. They generally have a more nuanced understanding of the cultural context, behavioral patterns, and peer networks that impact the effectiveness of a proposed solution. So, by including more doers in the conversation, our findings, strategies, and plans will be better anchored in reality and empathetic to the end user/customer, which will likely increase the success of proposed solutions.  

Plans will have more traction with the people responsible for implementing them.

When doers are not at the table they can’t help to define hot topics and set priorities. The proposals and plans developed are then several layers removed from the people most crucial to their implementation. I hear a lot of talk about the need for more intermediaries and consultants, and in a cycle without input from the doers we can end up with funders, intermediaries, and academics talking to each other in circles. It risks becoming a self-aggrandizing loop that doesn’t resonate with the front-line action.

The reasons why doer voices are missing from the conversation are varied and complex. It’s possible that they are less networked to the conveners and report authors than their intermediary colleagues. It’s also possible, unfortunately, that their perspectives are undervalued or overshadowed by the power dynamic that exists between funders and doers. However, one reason seems clear: The field of social impact is underinvesting in doer organizational capacity and professional development. This underinvestment limits their ability to both be at the table when new solutions are proposed and also implement changes.  

I was recently talking with a colleague who shared the following illustration. A Stanford graduate who elected to work for a nonprofit organization wanted to attend a two-day professional conference. The woman asked her manager if she could go, she offered to pay her conference fee and travel out of her own pocket, and just needed approval for paid time away from the office. The answer was no; the organization couldn’t spare her for even two days. Unfortunately, this reality of lack of resources and bandwidth is all too common.  

To solve the world’s complex problems we need to continue to innovate. Asking tough questions and pushing the boundaries of what is possible is a must. To get the best answers the field also needs to better engage the voices of front-line actors in high-level discussions about social innovation, and in defining priorities and developing plans. The doers need enough bandwidth to occasionally step out of their day-to-day leadership, management, and program delivery obligations to contribute meaningfully to this dialogue.  

Equally important to getting doers to the social innovation table is equipping them to share their topical expertise more effectively across sectors, supporting them to grow professionally, and engaging them as co-creators of social innovation’s future sweet spots. Isn’t it as important, if not more so, to invest in their organizational capacities, leadership skills, and knowledge than to pour money into intermediaries, backbone organizations, and consultants? I appreciate the role of those who offer a broad perspective, facilitate connections, and oversee complex multi-stakeholder processes, but we need to remember not to cannibalize the individuals and projects directly working with communities as we follow new trends in the field.

For each dollar invested in an intermediary, we should carefully consider the trade-off and make sure that it wouldn’t be better spent to build the organizational capacity of a key NGO, fund leadership training for a promising leader, or pay to document and disseminate lessons learned from the doers who directly drive results in the field.

Everyone – the doers in their diverse areas of expertise as well as those that fund, inform and guide the field more broadly – have insights that can shape our sense of what’s possible. From the ivory tower to foundation board rooms to where the rubber meets the road, all contingents deserve support to build the skills they need to create positive change in the 21st century.  



Network Building needs support

Problem solving requires constant involvement of many people, many resources over many years. Building databases of people involved in solving problems (doers) and bringing them together to learn, share ideas, and innovate ways to support their on-going efforts requires talent, technology, advertising and on-going support from resource providers. We can connect on-line and we can connect face to face. However, without more support for building information bases and bringing people together, and supporting the general operations of doers, we'll have lots of advise but not enough places where the advise is able to be applied. I've been leading the Tutor/Mentor Connection in Chicago since 1993 in an effort to support the entire universe of volunteer-based tutoring/mentoring programs in the Chicago region. I've been able to build a wide range of information resources which can be found at http://www.tutormentorexchange.net. There have been all sorts of obstacles and challenges to this work which I share in blog articles at http://tutormentor.blogspot.com I think that there are many roles universities, faith groups, and young people can take to support network building and collective efforts. I share some of my ideas in essays like this. http://tinyurl.com/TMI-Make-Good-happen

"Doers" voices aren't the only ones missing

As a doer, much of what is presented here resonates with me. However, I can't help but be shocked and disappointed by the lack of acknowledgement of the other major missing voice at the table: that of the people being "served" by the doers, academics, and consultants. If we really hope to resolve social issues, initiatives need to come from leaders within those communities most affected by injustice.

Missing Voices

Wonderful discussion. You might be interested in a project going on in Wiltshire UK called Wiltshire Voices. The project is based on the work of the Philosopher Richard Rorty and aims to bring narratives into the social policy process. Empathy can drive actions when linked to a more understanding view of the social contexts that frame the life experiences of those who do not or cannot participate in civic life. Find out more (if you like) at http://wiltshirevoices.wordpress.com/

Right to the point

Hi Kriss, I agree and can totally relate with this. I am a Canadian researching social innovation in Taiwan. Only a bit more than 1 month into my research, I found the difficulty of getting connected with actual front-line workers. Many social entrepreneurs are very busy with day-to-day operations of their business that they could not spare enough time to summarize their expereince and participate in high-level discussions. The high level discussions I know of are still led by government agencies and academic institutions. Another problem is there are many entities promoting the term "social enterprise", but there aren't as many individuals wanting and capable of becoming social entrepreneurs.

Innovation and Execution

Hi there, I've been staring at this article for a number of minutes now trying to fit it into my experience (by the way, I am PMP '79). Over the years since the GSB, I've been rooted in the private sector, but very active with a number of non-profits. These experiences culminated for me when I was "CEO" of a small food bank (600 volunteers, 2500 clients). We were lucky to have lots of committed volunteers, a very smart and experienced set of Volunteer Leaders & Board Members, and two very overworked part-time staff. While the concept of getting food from people who have it to people who need it is basic on its face, my time at the helm required quite a bit of innovation, though I don't recall ever describing it that way back in the day. The church whose basement we borrowed got torn down! As a result, we had to execute plans & processes that were very new to us, because they were not originally part of our core process...from fundraising, to political lobbying, to construction management, and to identify those members of our community who were enthusiastic about our core mission but capable of playing roles in the various projects. We did have various consultants approach us to offer help (for compensation) with some of the transformational activities. However, our Board was very conservative about not only what we spent, but how we spent it, and ultimately, we found the skills we needed among our Volunteers, Volunteer Leaders, and various actors in external roles from Television Anchors to Radio DJ's to elected officials to get each element done. At the end of it we had raised a million dollars, built the basement of a new church, moved back and forth to a temporary facility, and in our spare time, added an off-site warehouse. We expanded our client capacity by 40%, and became a much more professional and process-driven operation, where Volunteers serve clients, staff serve Volunteers, and Board serves all. As I said earlier, though, we never thought that what we were doing was innovation...our environment required change, and as a team, we figured out how to have fun changing! To me, it didn't feel that different than the way the teams I've been a part of in the private sector have responded to market imperatives for change. I will say one thing: The wonderful experience I enjoyed in the role above depended, on a daily basis, on the skills I learned at the GSB and, in particular, the PMP. Sorry if this looks like one big run-on paragraph...it appears that the comment system doesn't like extra spacing! Sincerely, Dan Carroll '79

false dilemma?

Many of the intermediaries you describe as siphoning off funds from building capacity of the "doers" are in the business of going to where the doers work and building their capacity...

getting doers involved in your social innovations work

I'm the Interim Executive Director of a large human services nonprofit in SF--St. Anthony Foundation (www.stanthonysf.org). We have been providing services to the poor and low-income people of the Tenderloin neighborhood for more than 60 years. I appreciated this piece on getting "doers" more involved. I'm reminded of our experience of doing advocacy on social policies affecting our guests. What a difference when legislators or their staff are approached by those of us who daily work serving food, helping with rehab, distributing clothes instead of the policy wonks in agency who only do analysis and advocacy. The experiential knowledge offers a perspective that does not contradict the analysis but gives it passion and persistence. That may be the element your efforts at social innovation may need.

The 4 kinds of conversations

Kriss, I'm SO amazed by/at the serendipity of this article; I just had two mentoring calls with clients last week ABOUT this very topic! As I read your article, I found myself thinking about the "kinds" of conversations we have: action oriented rapport building opportunity seeking event coordination I'm going to forward this article to one person right now...great work! Jason Womack

Totally agree, Kriss!

Couldn't have put it better myself. It feels like our industry is becoming a big bubble of "talkers" and not enough "doers." i am at the SoCap conference right now and the problem is evident

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