Social Innovation for Community-Based Organizations

By: Ruby Maddox

Social Innovation are a pretty big buzz word these days. Often linked with concepts like social entrepreneurship and social impact, social innovation presents new ways of thinking about effecting change that employs real and lasting results. Organizations are challenging traditional strategies, creating new partnerships, while finding ways to implement evidence-based programs.

What is it?

According to Center for Social Innovation at Stanford Graduate School of Business,

“A social innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just, than present solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”

Or as Geoff Mulgan states, “New ideas that work“.

The Centre for Social Innovation asserts that “Social innovation refers to the creation, development, adoption and integration of new and renewed concepts and practices that put people and the planet first.”


In 2009 President Obama announced funding for The Social Innovation Fund (SIF), a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which would combine public and private resources to grow the impact of innovative, community-based solutions that have compelling evidence of improving the lives of people in low-income communities throughout the United States.  “The Social Innovation Fund (SIF) is a powerful approach to transforming lives and communities that positions the federal government to be a catalyst for impact—mobilizing public and private resources to find and grow community solutions with evidence of strong results.” – Corporation for National and Community Service.

Social Innovation in organizations incorporates 4 tenets:

  • Innovative Strategy
  • Cross-Sector Networks and Partnerships
  • Conducive environments for new ideas & innovative thinking
  • Impact-Driven processes

Organizations across the country have received funding for projects that are not only forward thinking but offer cross-sector solutions for social problems. The Social Innovation Fund and initiatives like it have helped cultivate an environment of support for new ideas, impact driven results, and of social hubs of like-minded  innovators and forward thinking change-makers. Organizations like Startingbloc, Social Innovation Lab, and Hive serve as both leadership development institutes as well as networking societies.

Why is it important?

In their article, “Social Innovation Creates Prosperous Societies,” Kevin Chika Urama & Ernest Nti Acheampong, write,

“Social innovation is helping to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems with new solutions…In the process of creating solutions, it is also profoundly changing beliefs, basic practices, resources, and social power structures….Many of the most important social challenges facing the world today require radical innovation that cuts across organizational, sectoral, and disciplinary boundaries.”

While I’ve always been interested in urban public policy and and civic engagement. In undergrad, I was always pretty certain that I did NOT want to work for the public sector. My passion was looking at alternative forms of community development and I was pretty sure municipal governance was entrenched in doing things one way, with little room for innovation. But today local governments like many non-governmental organizations are developing new strategies to tackle problems and fostering community initiatives that show results. These changes solve basic problems while transforming people’s ideas about what’s possible in urban communities.

How Social Innovation Can Help CBOs

Gardening the Community saw bike delivered produce as one way to reduce their carbon foot-print while promoting healthier lifestyles.
Innovative Strategies: Gardening the Community saw bike delivered produce as one way to reduce their carbon foot-print while promoting healthier lifestyles.

Is your CBO Socially Innovative?

Innovative Strategy:
What means are you currently using to achieve your mission? Are there alternative ways that you hadn’t considered? What is something that is new in the approach? What is something that likely has not been done this way? Or been done this way in a particular location? What makes this particular method new or unique?

Cross-Sector Approach
When I first started working in a food-related organization, I would go to conferences and see many of them same people. We attended the same events, had similar networks, and similar strategic processes. While this was great for resource sharing, benchmarking, and creating a sense of community, it didn’t build an emphasis on bringing people from outside the sector to who could approach the work from their perspective. In your work with your organization what new partnerships can you create with sectors you might not have considered?

Conducive Environment for Innovation:
Think of ways in which your organization can encourage staff and other participants to “think outside the box”. Resist the temptation to suppress alternative perspectives without consideration.  Creating an environment charged with creativity and supportive of new ideas is a great way to get a diversity of perspectives and remain forward-thinking as an organization.

Telling our stories is important but knowing if and when we achieve our mission is also essential. Knowing how you’re going to measure your impact should be considered from the inception of any initiative or program plan.  You should also have an understanding of how this impact will benefit society as a whole.

While Socially Innovative thinking can be a positive approach for an organization. It shouldn’t be the only focus.

Says, Vanessa Mason, senior eHealth manager at ZeroDivide, an organization that works to advance technology for the under served,

“Social innovation is a necessary approach for community-based organizations in light of dwindling material and human capital. However, don’t let it cause you to lose sight of your mission. It is a means to an end, not the end itself.”


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