We spend a lot of time in this country talking about innovation, particularly on the East and West coasts. But I was reminded recently that innovation can happen anywhere, even in the “fly over states” (which is such an obnoxious term, by the way).
I was in South Boston, Virginia last week to deliver a Financial Model Assessment to the Halifax Educational Foundation. They fund the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), which is a fascinating model of higher education innovation.
Almost 30 years ago community leaders in this tiny, rural town 75 miles from Raleigh, North Carolina realized that their primary industries of tobacco, textiles and furniture were fading fast. In order to revamp their local economy, they decided to create a hybrid higher education institution (part community college, part incubator, part workforce development site, part educational broker) that would prepare the next generation workforce.
The SVHEC renovated two 150-year old abandoned tobacco warehouses (one to LEED certification) into 100,000 square feet of high-tech classrooms and labs featuring advanced machining and simulation technology focused on nursing, advanced manufacturing, 3-D modeling, and the business of art and design. Their goal is “to re-tool southern Virginia’s rural workforce for jobs in the New Economy.”
They have created an example of what innovative higher education can look like. The video below describes the center, which although located in the middle of rural America, rivals most large city higher education institutions:
The SVHEC recognized early the threat that changing times posed to their community and created a solution that not only recycled beautiful old buildings, but more importantly breathed new life into a rural economy on the brink of extinction. Theirs is truly a model for innovative rural economic development.
And it is testament to the fact that social innovation can happen anywhere.
Because social change doesn’t require big names, huge ideas, or deep pocketbooks. It simply demands a confident vision and the leadership and tenacity necessary to execute on it.
Photo Credit: SVHEC, Steve Helber
January was all about wealth inequality, all the time. The 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty was an appropriate backdrop to growing unease about the fact that the rich are getting exceedingly richer.
But there is much debate about what the solution is and even how to frame the problem. And where do nonprofits fit in, and what does it all mean for the future? It is an enormous, far-reaching and complex problem.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in January. But please add to the list in the comments. And if you want more, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.
You can also find the list of past months’ 10 Great Reads here.
- This year marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Despite the long attack, wealth inequality is getting worse, not better, and is becoming a very hot topic. But Mark Schmitt, writing in New Republic, takes issue with how the inequality conversation is being framed. He argues that “we need a way to talk and think about inequality that presents it as a system, and then finds the points of intervention that might actually change the system.”
- Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, due out in March and reviewed this month by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times, takes reframing the inequality conversation even further. Piketty makes a rather depressing argument that when viewed over history wealth inequality is the rule rather than an anomaly and without huge systemic change (like a global wealth tax) will only get worse.
- And where does the nonprofit sector fit in? Mark Rosenman argues that nonprofits should play a pivotal role in advocating for change: “If the United States is again to be a nation where upward mobility applies to more than those already near the top, nonprofits must exercise their moral authority and advocate for economic policies that give a hand up to the poor and advance a vision of the common good that includes all Americans.”
- The often employed method to combat poverty – education – may not be the answer anymore. Clay Shirky takes higher education to task for “preserving an arrangement that works well for elites—tenured professors, rich students, endowed institutions—but increasingly badly for everyone else.”
- But for David Bornstein, appropriately from the world of solutions journalism, there are still some bright spots to point to in the War on Poverty.
- Maybe part of the solution lies in changing our measures of success. This video suggests we move from Gross Domestic Product to a Social Progress Index to measure a country’s success.
- They say long-form journalism is coming back and let’s hope so if Drew Philp’s piece “Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500” is an example of the trend. He beautifully describes the process of investing his heart and soul in a house and neighborhood in crumbling Detroit.
- And, on a related note, it turns out that “gentrification” may not be a dirty word anymore, according to NPR.
- In other news, writing in the Nonprofit Quarterly Eileen Cunniffe provides some interesting examples of how arts nonprofits are reinventing themselves and their relationship to money.
- Finally, the Nonprofit Tech For Good blog rounds up 19 really interesting social media and fundraising infographics for nonprofits.
Photo Credit: University of Iowa Libraries, 1960
As kids across the country head back to school this month I thought I’d share a great video that my son’s English teacher had them watch. It is an “Open Letter to Students Returning to School”, but in essence it is an engaging and energizing endorsement of public education. It is targeted to this current generation of American students with the aim of helping them understand the unique opportunity they, and we, have been given with public education.
How we educate this next generation is really about the future of our country and our world. And I found this video incredibly inspiring. Education, at its core, is the ultimate social innovation, isn’t it?
May was about the “era of adaptation.” We are living in an age where change is a true constant, and we must adapt. We must adapt how we use technology, give money, get educated, use data, and the list goes on. It is an exciting (if sometimes overwhelming) time filled with opportunity.
Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in May. But, as always, add your favorites to the list in the comments below. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or my newest addition, Google+.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- The Era of Adaptation is upon us, so says Antony Bugg-Levine from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, and as such “adaptation requires nonprofits to invest in building and sustaining their organizations, not just running programs.” Amen to that!
- And how people give is definitely undergoing change. A really interesting article in the Wall Street Journal profiled Laura and John Arnold and their scientific approach to giving away their billions, while hoping to redefine philanthropy in the process.
- Google announced a new giving app that allows users to give $1 donations to nonprofits. Doesn’t sound like much, but nonprofits should keep an eye on this. As Google continues to be everywhere, this is an innovation where you may not want to be left behind.
- Warren Buffett and his sister Doris are doing something pretty interesting this summer. They are offering the first ever philanthropy MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Over six weeks, participants will learn about philanthropy and then some participants will be given money to give away to nonprofits.
- As women increasingly control wealth, Anya Kamenetz from Fast Company asks the question, “Will Women Billionaires Make Better Philanthropists?”
- And then there’s technology and all that it is changing. Writing as a LinkedIn Influencer, David Kirkpatrick describes the coming of age of the Millennial generation and the opportunity (and burden) of deciding whether to use the gift of technology for the greater, or just their own, good.
- Big data has the potential to create enormous change as well. Regardless of your politics, Obama’s reelection team included some really great minds and one of them is now working on using big data to solve social problems.
- And how about higher education? Ben Thurman breaks down the growing innovations in higher education on the Dowser blog. From online courses, to apprenticing, to Silicon Valley’s growing interest in higher education innovations.
- Writing on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog John Gillespie provides a very useful set of 5 questions nonprofits should ask themselves to determine if they are truly ready to scale.
- In a thought-provoking two-part series (here and here), Caroline Fiennes explains why nonprofits should monitor, but not evaluate, their work, and the role social scientists play in the evaluation of big ideas. Hers is a great distinction, but I’m not sure how we execute on the concept in the real world.
Photo Credit: AngryJulieMonday
Perhaps it had something to do with the SXSW Interactive conference last month, but March was all about using technology in interesting ways to further social change. From crowdfunding, to a new giving graph, to credit card donations to the homeless, to engaging people in the arts and beyond, people are experimenting with technology for social change in really exciting ways.
Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in March. But let me know in the comments what I missed. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or ScoopIt.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- Crowdfunding is quickly becoming the hot new thing in the social change world. It remains to be seen if it is a game changer, but in the meantime take a look at some examples of how its being used here, here, and here. And while we’re talking about innovative use of technology to fundraise, Lucy Bernholz dissects some new efforts to donate to the homeless via a credit card.
- Writing on the ArtsFwd blog, Anna Prushinskaya describes how some innovative arts organizations have used social media to effectively engage audiences in new ways.
- I’m really excited about a new technology the Case Foundation is developing that will map your online search preferences to giving suggestions just like Google, Facebook and others currently use your search preferences to suggest products and services. (I’ll be interviewing the mastermind behind this, Will Grana, on the blog this summer).
- I love to see nonprofits using new media (like video and infographics) to tell their story. Beth Kanter offers some easy tips for creating infographics. And speaking of cool infographics, check out this one on why slacktivists are more active than you think.
- It seems “scale,” the social innovation buzzword of a few years back, is being redefined. Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, describes a new report that expands the idea of scale and offers ways grantmakers can support it. And Ben Mangan, CEO of nonprofit EARN, spurs nonprofits and funders to move past “stifling incrementalism” and start working towards real scale.
- Dan Pallotta ruffled some feathers, as is his way, with his TED Talk this month The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong, and there were several responses. But I thought the most thought-provoking was from a group of professors from Boston who suggest that Pallotta’s argument that nonprofit salaries are too low only reinforces the wealth inequality of the American economy.
- And on a related note, Dione Alexander, writing on the Mission and Money blog, explains increasing wealth inequality as a kind of bullying, noting “The social contract through which we assume shared responsibility for the community is broken.”
- And since we are on the topic, this video about wealth inequality in America blew my mind. If you want a quick and dirty view of where America’s money goes, take a look.
- As part of the ten year anniversary of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Matthew Forti looks back at the past ten years of measuring nonprofit outcomes, the good, bad and the ugly.
- Writing in the Duke Chronicle, Trinity senior Elena Botella argues that deciding when a public service should be privatized should be based on evidence, as she says “Humans respond to a profit motive, but we also respond to altruism, community values, prestige and pride in our work.”
Photo Credit: mendhak
The gloves came off in February. There was enough criticism to go around from foundation decision making and use of evaluations, to Millennial social entrepreneurs, to American charity, to nonprofit versus for-profit, to the overwhelming politeness of the nonprofit sector, it seems everything was up for debate. But that’s okay with me — I think controversy can be an incredible aid for pushing thinking forward.
Below are my top 10 picks for what was worth reading in February in social innovation. But, as always, let me know in the comments what caught your eye over the past month. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or ScoopIt.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- The Center for Effective Philanthropy released a report on nonprofit performance assessment that criticized funders for 1) not being willing to pay for evaluations and 2) being more interested in data that is helpful to the foundation, not the nonprofit. Beth Kanter chimes in with some tools for becoming a “data informed” nonprofit.
- While we’re on the topic of foundations, “transparency” is becoming a real buzzword for them lately, and Lucy Bernholz digs deeper into recent examples, while James Irvine Foundation president Jim Canales (who will be the subject of this blog’s March interview) practices some real transparency by reacting to recent controversy about the foundation’s new arts strategy.
- And what about the flood of Millennials wanting to be the next great social entrepreneur? Writing on the Harvard Business Review blog, Mike McGlade provides a cautionary (and potentially controversial) tale to Millennials seeking to become a social entrepreneur. As he says “Before you don the social entrepreneur title and dive into building your enterprise consider if you need more experience to realize your idea. If you do, set down your entrepreneur ego and find a job. You need to get smart to make a difference.”
- Does America, one of the most charitable countries, have a hard time accepting charity itself? The controversy surrounding a United Arab Emirates gift to Joplin, MO after it was devastated by a May 2011 tornado makes Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill wonder if America is no longer the self-sufficient, munificent benefactor it once was.
- In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Caroline Preston describes how politeness is holding the nonprofit sector back. (It reminds me of this blog post a couple of years back).
- The Dowser blog interviews Munro Richardson c0-founder of startup MyEDMatch, an innovative website that matches teachers with opportunities across the country, to address the problem of teacher turnover.
- In keeping with the growing drumbeat to connect the disparate nonprofit sector, Beth Simone Novack calls for digitizing nonprofit 990 data in order to “help the neediest among us access better services, nonprofit providers to become more effective and efficient, and everyone to understand the role of the nonprofit sector in our economy better.”
- The Nonprofit Finance Fund created a great graphic that demonstrates the core issues facing small nonprofits and what they and funders can do about them.
- Writing on the Idealistics blog, David Henderson suggests a process, based on how businesses maximize profits, for how nonprofits can use data to maximize outcomes.
- If you really want to change the world is it better to work in the nonprofit sector, or make money in the for-profit sector and give it away? William MacAskill and Brooke Allen provide a thought-provoking (and sometimes maddening) debate on the issue. MacAskill says don’t get a job at a nonprofit, and Brooke Allen argues Wall Street is not the answer.
Photo Credit: Tim Pierce
I started a tradition in December of 2010 with a blog post on the nonprofit trends to watch in the coming year. Keeping with that tradition, here is my take on the nonprofit trends for 2013 (you can read my nonprofit trends posts for 2011 and 2012 as well).
As I’ve said before, I’m more optimist than fortune teller, but I do think that the nonprofit sector is changing in some exciting ways. And I for one am excited to see what the new year brings. Here’s what I think we should watch for:
1. More Demand for Outcomes
The biggest trend I see is a growing demand for nonprofits to 1) articulate what results they hope their work with achieve and 2) track whether those results are actually happening. Nonprofits have long discussed the outputs of their work: # of people served, # of services provided. But the sector is increasingly being asked to articulate and track the outcomes they are achieving. How are people’s lives changing because of the work a nonprofit does? Social change has become an increasing demand of funders and other supporters. That means nonprofits must develop their own theory of change (how they use community resources to create change to a social problem) and then measure whether that theory is becoming a reality.
This increasing focus on nonprofit outcomes is leading to the 4 other trends:
2. Decreasing Emphasis on Nonprofit “Overhead”
The bane of the nonprofit sector is the meaningless and destructive public perception that you can separate nonprofit programs from the administrative costs (staff, technology, systems, materials, fundraising) to make those programs happen. This separation is so destructive because it forces nonprofits into a misalignment of money, mission and competence which sets them up for failure. A nonprofit cannot succeed if they don’t integrate their operations and money-making efforts into their mission. But the good news is that more and more people are coming to realize that you can’t just invest in programs without the staff, infrastructure and fundraising to make those programs happen.
3. More Advocacy for the Sector
as a Whole
The nonprofit sector has long been a fractured grouping of organizations of various sizes, business models, and issue areas. It has been almost impossible to organize the disparate sector to fight for better government regulations, improved public perception, more funding. But that tide is starting to turn. With the advent of groups like CForward and a growing discussion about how best to advocate for the sector as a whole, I believe that we will start to see the sector organize, mobilize and build the confidence necessary to claim its rightful place.
4. Savvier Donors
Because nonprofits are getting more savvy, donors are as well. In addition to an increasing demand for proof of outcomes, donors are slowly starting to understand the difference between two kinds of money in the sector: revenue and capital. They are starting to recognize that nonprofits cannot exist on revenue alone. Nonprofits must have infusions of capital every once and awhile to strengthen and grow their staff, technology, systems, fundraising. Call me crazy, but I truly believe that donors are becoming more open to making capacity capital investments in the nonprofits they love. That’s because donors are realizing that in such a stark economic environment those nonprofits that don’t have adequate infrastructure simply will not survive, let alone be able to adequately address the social problem they were organized to solve.
5. Increased Efforts to Rate and Compare Nonprofits
As nonprofit outcomes are increasingly in demand, donors become savvier, and the “nonprofit overhead” distinction diminishes, we will increasingly evaluate nonprofits based on the results they achieve, not on how they spend their money. But that requires that a whole infrastructure for evaluating and rating nonprofits emerges, just as it has for the financial markets. This has already started with Markets for Good, GreatNonprofits, and the changes Charity Navigator has made to how they rate nonprofits. I think this market for nonprofit rating infrastructure will continue to grow and evolve as we get smarter about focusing resources on the most effective nonprofits.
These are exciting times for the nonprofit sector. It seems that for the first time in a long time everything is on the table. And its up to nonprofits to understand the trends and where they fit as the sector evolves.
Photo Credit: zigwamp
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Adin Miller. Adin is the Senior Director for Community Impact and Innovations at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. In this role, he develops new strategies and programs to bring about change and impact within JCF’s mission. Adin focuses on defining metrics to document impact, maximizing measurable impact and increasing the visibility of the organization.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: You have always been on the funding side of social change. How do you think philanthropy must evolve in order to add to, instead of detract from, the new energy around social innovation?
Adin: I actually believe the philanthropic sector is embracing social innovation, although at a slower rate than we expected. Our modern version of philanthropy, which traces its roots back to the formation of private foundations and federated systems over 100 years ago, has had many examples of supporting innovation and taking risk. However, I believe the growth and demand for metrics, data, and measures of success and impact may have unintentionally tamped down the sector’s willingness to take risk through innovation.
The Bay Area community is identified with entrepreneurship and innovation. That same ethos is also evident within the nonprofit sector (for example, see The Joshua Venture’s profile of it’s 2012 applicant pool (PDF)). The Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund has embraced this ethos by providing funding to support social innovation in new and established organizations. I have also advocated for a broader embracing of innovations in how we fund in order to further support new approaches.
By embracing the energy around social innovation, I can engage new donors in our efforts while also providing the means to support an evolving ecosystem of organizations that make up our local Jewish community. In some sense, I believe philanthropy’s resistance to the new energy around social innovation seems misplaced. Harnessing that energy can be an effective tool in a comprehensive strategic philanthropic approach.
Nell: You are fairly passionate about connecting traditional philanthropy to the emerging world of impact investing. Why is it critical to bring the two worlds together?
Adin: I believe our current societal challenges and the continued shift by government away from social, safety net, and education services requires that philanthropy look beyond the confines of simply applying a 5% spend rate on a private foundation’s net investment assets. The general principle of impact investing encourages philanthropy to make better use of the other 95% of assets it manages. Whether structured through Mission-Related Investments, Program-Related Investments, or emerging fields such as social impact bonds, philanthropy has the opportunity to put more of its resources into action to support social change efforts and grow them in scale.
Community foundations and federated systems (such as my employer, the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund), in my opinion, have the greater opportunity to embrace impact investing. They directly engage individuals through donor-advised vehicles, supporting foundations, or annual fundraising appeals, and have the unique opportunity to also encourage individual social impact investing that compliments and aligns with their individual charitable giving and philanthropic behavior. The market opportunity is big and when it’s finally realized, will have a much bigger disruptive impact on how philanthropy functions and supports social change.
Nell: In your current role at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund part of your charge is “to define and develop metrics to document impact.” Determining social impact is such a holy grail in the social change sector. How do you go about defining and measuring impact in your work?
Adin: As an institution, the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund is looking to better understand and track its ability to affect social change. The need for and supply of data have been hallmarks of the current disruptive state of philanthropy. But, I’m also cognizant that we cannot overwhelm our grantees with outsized and overwhelming data requests. As such, we’re methodically working with our funded organizations and community donors to identify the key data points we should be collectively tracking to measure effectiveness and impact.
For our large-scale initiatives – such as our Reducing Barriers and Increasing Access to Participation in Jewish Life initiative – we have adopted a Collective Impact approach and the specific intention to work with partner organizations and community members to define shared goals and intended impact. We have also positioned our new grantees to set aside funding for smaller-scale efforts to assess and measure their effectiveness. I expect that my team and I will continue to work with grantees and partners to craft the right recipe to allow us to effectively measure impact while also emphasizing the impact may take years to become evident.
Nell: You have been involved with social change both as a staff member at funding institutions and as principal of your own consulting firm. What role do you think consultants play in the social change ecosystem?
Adin: Consultants have the opportunity to bring their wider field of vision, built through multiple and diverse interactions with clients, into play. In some respect, consultants serve as ambassadors of thought and action that can bridge institutions in the social change ecosystem. When I managed my own consulting firm I had the privilege of learning about crosscutting issues and approaches that I could then bring into my interactions with clients. There is a tremendous amount of quiet coaching and mentorship that happens as a consultant and that’s the entry point by which I could advise as well as gently push clients to consider additional paths to achieve their missions and goals.
Nell: Before moving from consulting to the JCFEF you were active with your Working In White Space blog, but you haven’t been as active on the blog recently. What role do you think social media plays in social change and how do you stay engaged with it from within an organization?
Adin: Oh, I very much miss my blog. Writing is undeniably a muscle that requires constant use and dedication, and my own ability to do so took a dramatic hit over the past 12 months. Nevertheless, I believe in the power of social media and blogging to share experiences, push ideas along, and test out theories. In my current work, I’ve encouraged my team to find their own voices and become engaged in social media and blogging. The opportunity to exchange ideas in public is a key element of how philanthropy professionals can further extend the effectiveness of their efforts while also raising the transparency quotient so needed in the sector.
On a personal level, I still try to maintain an active profile in social media (mostly Twitter – I’m @adincmiller – but Google+ , LinkedIn and Facebook as well) where I push along interesting content. I follow about 80 different philanthropy, social media, and impact investing RSS feeds that give me a great window into current debates and trending issues. And I continue to coach and push for greater communication through social media platforms.
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