Many of the social challenges your community faces everyday are longstanding, complex, or even systemic. Obstacles such as poverty, racism, inequity, and food insecurity are experienced by real people each and every day. As a social-good leader, you strive to address these challenges and create positive social impact. But how do you find solutions to problems that feel like they’ve always existed? The key is social innovation.
What is Social Innovation?
To innovate is to “make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.” Social innovation is the process of finding new and creative solutions to pressing social challenges. Developing these innovative solutions often requires tearing down barriers and overhauling ineffective strategies and programs to create something better.
Social innovation is not just a strategy for the social-good sector. In fact, it is fast becoming a priority in the business world. Fueled by both consumer and employee demands, many for-profit companies have expanded their focus to include social causes. They’ve learned that they can make money while also making a difference in the world. Organizations across many different industries fuel social innovation by donating to causes, partnering with social-good organizations, encouraging employees to serve, and even ensuring that their raw materials are ethically sourced. All with a focus on making a difference while making a profit.
Social innovation is also a key ingredient in improving health and wellbeing outcomes. Access to healthcare is an essential ingredient in living a healthy life, but social innovators understand that health outcomes are mostly determined outside of a doctor’s office. Innovative solutions to improving individual and community health start with addressing all the social determinants of health, including food security, community connections, and community resources. Eight students at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health received the 2022 New World Social Innovation Fellowship for their work in addressing pressing health issues in creative ways. Their projects include connecting emergency-room patients with social services, using technology to understand how environments impact health, and developing AI tools to track diabetes progression in patients. These students are just a few of the many social innovators working towards finding creative solutions in both public health and healthcare.
Making Social Innovation a Priority
Though social innovation is important in many sectors and organizations, it should be a primary focus for nonprofits. Small organizations and nonprofits who are just getting started can create their brand and procedures with social innovation in mind. But what about established nonprofits like yours? How do you take your mature nonprofit that has been up and running for years, or even decades, and re-tool to prioritize innovative solutions and lasting impact? You can start with these three steps.
Step 1: Take a Step Back
You can’t map out where you are going until you understand where you are. Step back and take an honest look at your organization. Are your programs still having the impact they were designed to create? Do you have the talent you need to fulfill your mission? Is your fundraising allowing room for growth, or are you barely staying afloat? Are there obvious weaknesses in your leadership structure that need fixing? Do you have policies or procedures that have become obsolete in the face of changing economic and social conditions? Identifying what works, and what doesn’t, is essential to determining your next steps.
Step 2: Find Your Vision
Every nonprofit was created for a reason, and yours is no exception. You have a mission, a reason for existing. Can you easily articulate your mission? And does it dictate everything you do? Over time, missions can get lost in procedures and programs. Finding your nonprofit’s vision is not just about re-centering your organization on its original mission. It also requires determining if that mission is still relevant in this day and age. Your organization’s vision should combine what you’ve done in the past with where you want to go in the future.
Step 3: Move Forward
Once you’ve established where you are and where you want to go, you can make a plan for getting there. Build strategies based on your vision, prioritizing your biggest weaknesses. Make sure to include a wide variety of voices as you develop your new strategy. Change impacts everyone at your organization and those you serve. It is also important not to do too much at once. Massive change can be overwhelming and do more harm than good. Create a plan and take it one step at a time.
Heather McLeod Grant of the Stanford Innovation Review said that “Innovation is often described as new solutions to old problems, but those new solutions need not live only in new organizations. In fact, we think there is great potential in looking for other avenues to scale social impact, both through aligned action across many organizations and through innovation at scale that helps large nonprofits innovate and adapt to increase their impact.”
Every organization can increase their social impact, including yours. It takes intentional effort and making social innovation a priority. Look around and ask yourself if there is something your organization can do to become more socially innovative.
SureImpact is a purpose-built impact management platform that is designed for social-good providers by social-good providers. SureImpact provides the data collection and impact reporting infrastructure to meet the unique needs of social-good organizations as they work to find innovative solutions to complex social challenges. SureImpact’s simple and collaborative case management and outcome tracking tools are designed to help nonprofits manage, measure, and communicate their social impact while also increasing data capacity for their team members and supporting a high-performing culture.
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