When I arrived at the Stanford Center for Social Innovation in late 2004, it was a dynamic but unsettling time. While the Center had a lot of excited support, there was also a good deal of confusion over exactly what it was set up to do. Social innovation at the time wasn't a widely accepted construct. To many, the term meant "nonprofit management," to others it meant "social entrepreneurship," and to still others it had to do with "more effective philanthropy." So we set forth a definition of social innovation and a new mission and strategy — and this is key — all clearly grounded in dissolving boundaries and brokering a dialogue between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.
Our article "Rediscovering Social Innovation" lays it all out, but our new video shows what we mean in an engaging, upbeat shorthand, geared toward the next generation of leaders. It's called "Solving the World's Toughest Problems," because we have seen that really making a dent in the issues of our times requires nothing less than cross-sector collaboration.
"Social innovation," what we define as "a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals," is growing. Since 2004, seven new academic centers have been launched — from Ohio to Pittsburgh to Spain. Check out the Institute for Social Innovation at Carnegie Mellon and the Social Innovation Centre at INSEAD, for example. At Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Government and Innovation, a new book, The Power of Social Innovation is talking about this concept from the perspective of government.
Corporate sector social innovation is also taking hold. In the new volume Social Innovation, Inc., author Jason Saul is boldly declaring a "new era" in which companies profit from driving social change.
The big news in the field, as many of you know, was the launch of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation (SICP) in 2009. Recognizing that the best solutions to our challenges will be found in communities across the country, President Obama tasked SICP with engaging individuals, nonprofits, the private sector, and government to foster innovation and work together to make greater and more lasting progress on our nation's challenges.
This is all fantastic, but a quick Internet search on the following keywords shows us how far we still have to go when it comes to understanding and engaging in cross-sector collaboration. The numbers to the right represent the "results displayed" on Google:
|Topic Search||Search Results|
|Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy||7,670,000|
|Business Partnership Collaboration||7,330,000|
Cross-sector partnerships are unique — and also face four particular challenges. First, parties involved from different sectors have diverse goals and incentive structures. For example, money is often a key incentive for businesses but less so for nonprofits. Second, decision-making styles and organizational culture may clash. The slower bureaucratic styles inherent in government and public policy are frustrating and not well understood by businesses that are grounded in rapid efficiency. Third, timeframe perspectives are wildly disparate. For those working on social or environmental change, real results often take years and decades, not quarters. And fourth, power imbalances between parties may impede trust and honesty, which are critical elements for successful collaborations.
These problems also pose an opportunity — to act, study, and share our efforts on cross-sector collaboration. Let's get that meager 509,000 up to 7,000,000 — or 20,000,000!