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Field Notes

What The Social Innovator Needs

Andrew Wolk
April 10, 2010

Earlier this year, I asked everyone working within the social innovation field why we were not spreading proven approaches faster. I also said that the answer lay in linking resources to performance. When we efficiently connect resources to the highest performing organizations, we can truly start to spread approaches that work.

Today, I ask: How? How can we equip today’s leaders in nonprofits, philanthropy, government, and business to lead high performing organizations? Better yet, how can we help them optimize their role in spreading social innovation?

To understand how we can address the needs of social innovators, we need to first understand the nature of the role they will play in spreading what works. Here at Root Cause, we believe that social innovation is the process of finding, testing, and honing potentially transformative ideas, practices, principles, and models of approaching social issues. Therefore, we need to first train social innovators to correctly assess and analyze social needs in order to enable their development of innovative approaches. Innovators, trained in social needs assessment and analysis, will be able to understand the complex nature of social problem solving, clearly articulate their vision of change and develop expertise on the social issue landscape.

This in turn will allow them to identify new opportunities for impact, define organizational roles, and develop innovative solutions with a focus on target beneficiaries. Finally, this capacity of social needs assessment will assist them in developing and articulating an approach and managing an organization to achieve its goals. But once these leaders have developed innovative approaches, how can we help them spread these models? In other words, how are we equipping them to advance social innovation?

Our work through the Social Innovation Forum shows that spreading proven approaches requires collaboration between nonprofits, philanthropy, government, and business as they move through the social innovation process. Thus, social innovators need to be trained in strategic collaboration, where they can identify and develop key partnerships within and across social issues and sectors. These partnerships will facilitate the spread of innovative approaches via knowledge sharing about best practices and collaboration with similarly mission-aligned organizations.

However, this collaboration itself requires a platform like a social impact market. Therefore, effective social innovators understand how social impact markets operate. They can develop and implement a system to measure and communicate performance. Consequently, social innovators need to be trained to learn from performance, make data-driven decisions focused on continuous improvement, and effectively allocate resources based on performance.

If sustainable impact is a question of performance, leaders engaged in social impact need to measure their performance to maximize their social impact. This new generation of leaders will need to develop competencies in market assessment and analysis, building and sustaining organizations, engaging in outcomes-driven adaptive learning, and collaborating across sectors. Are our leaders ready for this? If not, how can we prepare them?

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