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Field Notes

End-of-year Reflections On Social Innovation And Investing In What Works

Andrew Wolk
December 29, 2010

As 2010 draws to a close, I have found myself reflecting on the journey that the field of social innovation and entrepreneurship has experienced. 

In February of 2011, Root Cause will celebrate its seventh birthday. It is amazing to me to consider how far we have come as a community working to advance the field of social innovation and entrepreneurship

Here are some of the developments that I believe we, as a field, can be proud of:

1. Social innovation is continuing to capture the attention of new stakeholders in nonprofits, philanthropy, government, and business. When I started Root Cause seven years ago, social innovation and entrepreneurship were a set of ideas about how to improve our approach to social problem solving shared by a small community of nonprofits and philanthropists. Perhaps the most prominent illustration of that community’s growth over the past several years is the existence of a White House Office of Social Innovation that is working to raise the profile of our field and helping communities spread effective approaches and invest in what works. Also, the emergence of America Forward, a coalition of innovative nonprofits, funders, and thought leaders in the field of social innovation has helped to ensure our voices are continuously heard—so that we can support important federal activities, such the creation of the Obama Administration’s Social Innovation Fund, while building champions on both sides of the political aisle.

2. We are beginning to understand the importance of collaborative efforts to target tough social issues. Seven years ago our field’s focus was on supporting and scaling individual organizations with approaches that had the potential to make significant progress on tough social issues. While building organizational capacity remains critical, the recent flood of studies, grant opportunities, and conversations focused on collaboration shows how much our thinking has matured. As John Kania’s and Mark Kramer’s recent article on “Collective Impact” impressively analyzes, no one organization has the resources, knowledge, and influence to tackle a social issue on its own. As I argued in a recent article on government’s role in collaboration that appeared in MIT’s Innovations journal, we need to target social issues collectively, and to coordinate our efforts on the programming and the funding side. One of the shining examples of this approach is the Youth Violence Prevention Funder Learning Collaborative started in Boston by the State Street Foundation.

3. We have also begun to experiment with new ways to produce and distribute more rigorous and actionable information that will help us to understand the root causes of social issues, the best approaches to addressing them, and the programs that are demonstrating the best results. Through Root Cause’s Social Impact Research initiative, we have become part of a committed community of researchers and information providers—including Charity Navigator, GuideStar, GiveWell, and Philanthropedia —that are working to improve the quality and availability of information to help guide decision-making about philanthropy.


As I look ahead to 2011, I believe that the United States is at a crossroads. The future of our society’s health and ability to advance depends on tackling our toughest challenges in education, health, job creation, and environmental sustainability. In an era of limited resources in which we must do more with less, it will take entrepreneurial and innovative leadership from all three sectors of society—public, nonprofit, and business—working together to better invest taxes and philanthropic dollars, as well as to better utilize markets in more creative and strategic ways. Ultimately, we will need to form healthy social impact markets that enable us to direct financial, volunteer, and in-kind resources to the approaches that are demonstrating results.

I look forward to continuing the journey with you in the new year.

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