A 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.