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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2013

reading 3-13Perhaps 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.

  1. 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.

  2. Writing on the ArtsFwd blog, Anna Prushinskaya describes how some innovative arts organizations have used social media to effectively engage audiences in new ways.

  3. 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).

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.”

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: July 2012

I was out of town for the first half of July (and mostly away from social media), so I’m probably not qualified to give a 10 best list for the month, but I’m still going to try (ha!). As always, please add what I missed (particularly this month) to the comments.

To me, July was about outcomes and measurement. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a growing drumbeat for social change organizations to measure what (if anything) they are changing. Some readers commenting on that post argued that measurement is not a new thing for the nonprofit sector. True, it’s not new, but its importance (to funders, ratings agencies, government agencies, etc.) is increasing dramatically. So those in the social change world must heed the call and understand the new reality.

As always, you can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

Here’s July’s 10 Great Reads in Social Innovation:

  1. In two back-to-back posts on the Full Contact Philanthropy blog, David Henderson explains how nonprofits have to get “smarter about how we allocate our scarce resources.” First by getting strategic about who they serve and then by focusing on outcomes.

  2. Bill Shore of Share Our Strength adds to the drumbeat by arguing “nonprofit organizations are failing to grapple with the threshold questions on which all else depends: what specific objective are they trying to achieve and how will they measure whether they have or have not done so. “

  3. In the Los Angeles Times, Jared Billings takes social innovation darling, Teach for America, to task by asking whether TFA can actually change student achievement if the majority of their teachers leave the profession after only two years.

  4. On the Mission:Innovation blog Nicole Wallace reviews Andrew Zolli’s new book Resilience and his argument that nonprofits must embrace a “new mind-set, one that emphasizes improvisation, ad hoc networks, and adaptation.”

  5. On the Forbes blog, Victor Hwang recapped this month’s Global Innovation Summit and the 10 Lessons on Growing Innovation that emerged from it.

  6. Maybe not everyone should be a social entrepreneur says Lara Galinsky, who (shockingly) works for Echoing Green, one of the biggest supporters of social entrepreneurs.

  7. And maybe not every nonprofit should scale, says John Brothers in a great two-part series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog.

  8. On what is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs (Unsectored), Mark Hecker recounts the story of true collaboration between public, private and nonprofit sectors when a drug raid was turned into small business development and job creation.

  9. It looks like women may be changing the face of philanthropy in exciting ways. “Women are exerting a greater influence on how philanthropy is done as they accumulate wealth and use their clout to change the way funds are raised and distributed.” Cool!

  10. Echoing the comments of Vikki Spruill from the Council on Foundations, Rick Cohen argues that foundations need to be more transparent in their work.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March 2012

March, perhaps because it included SXSW Interactive, seemed to be largely about the use of new media to tell social change stories. There are an increasing number of ways and examples of how those working to solve social problems can tell their stories and get people motivated to act, from video, to Pinterest, to infographics, to data visualizations and much more.

Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in March, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest.

  1. By necessity, nonprofits and social entrepreneurs are turning to new mediums to tell their story. The Chronicle of Philanthropy has created a showcase of nonprofit infographics and visualizations, and the MediaShift blog profiles the various ways educators are using Pinterest for curation, and finally while at SXSW Interactive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy got 25 nonprofit leaders to film their elevator speeches–it’s fascinating to see the various ways people tell their story quickly.

  2. Speaking of video storytelling, there was much debate about the Kony 2012 video produced by nonprofit organization Invisible Children. But I think Paul Shoemaker from Seattle SVP had the most reasoned and interesting take on it all when he argued that nonprofits should not be evaluated based on “one-size fits all” metrics.

  3. A new campaign aimed at solving staggering youth unemployment combines technology, crowdfunding and social entrepreneurship. It will be interesting to watch.

  4. From the Atlantic, the results of a new study that demonstrates that because of technology and the social media environment how Millennials think and process is changing dramatically, so how we educate future generations must change dramatically as well.

  5. Amy Sample Ward gives a great recap of the social good focused sessions at SXSW Interactive.

  6. Writing in the New York Times, David Carr, examines “Hashtag Activism,” and whether someone clicking a “Like” button can really change the world.

  7. As the arts continue to struggle to find funding amid shrinking audiences and competing charitable priorities, crowd-funding may be the answer.

  8. Beth Kanter hosted a great group of guest bloggers from the GeoFunders National Conference on her blog in March, my favorite of which was Adene Sack’s post describing the 3 myths about scaling nonprofits.

  9. Writing on the Harvard Business Review blog Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu, Simone Ahuja argue that Millennials take a do-it-yourself approach to solving large social problems, “they rely on a frugal and flexible mindset…and use the tools they have on hand to create a simple but effective solution to a highly complex problem. They are the contemporary MacGyvers.”

  10. Rich Tafel takes social entrepreneurs to task for “failing to recognize the complex nature of the problems we face [and] engaging in linear, simplistic solutions, when lasting change requires collaborative efforts.”

Photo Credit: kadorin

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: August

Since I was on vacation for a couple of weeks in August and pretty much unplugged, I’m probably not qualified to list the 10 greatest reads in social innovation for the month of August, but I’m still going to give it a shot. As always, please add what I missed to the comments.

You can also read the lists of Great Reads from previous months here.

  1. Guest blogger on the Tactical Philanthropy blog, Jed Emerson, a pioneer in the impact investing arena, argues that impact investing is at risk of missing a key opportunity to move the field forward.

  2. Strategic finance is one of the hardest things for many nonprofit leaders to master, but also one of the most critical. Nonprofit Finance Fund explains how to approach it.

  3. Sea Change Capital Partners and Lodestar Foundation are partnering to create a new fund to pay for nonprofit collaboration and mergers. A pool of merger money is a great new addition to what is a pretty big hole in the nonprofit capital market.

  4. From the Harvard Business Review blog comes the argument that sometimes it can be good for business to fire some customers. This concept should apply to nonprofits’ donors as well.

  5. One of the biggest hurdles to nonprofit performance measurement is a lack of money to make it happen. On the Social Currency blog, Angela Francis explains how nonprofits can find the money for evaluation through capacity capital.

  6. The biggest news in August was nonprofit Jumo’s merger with for-profit GOOD. Antony Bugg-Levine (who was just announced as the new CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund yesterday) explains how this merger is just the beginning of a real blurring of sector lines to come.

  7. On August 24th, US Secretary of Education @arneduncan held a Twitter Town Hall to answer questions about America’s public education system and his ideas for reform. You can see the Tweets at #askarne or read the highlights here. He plans to hold another Twitter Town Hall soon.

  8. The Future Generations blog offers a great framework and examples of that often touted, but rarely understood, concept: “scale.”

  9. In the wake of Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple, Cliff Kuang offers a reflection on Jobs as a supreme innovator and great user of technology.

  10. From the tech blog, A Smart Bear, comes a lesson for entrepreneurs (and social entrepreneurs too) when being an expert is harmful.

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Where to Learn More About Social Innovation

Social innovation is still very much a nascent field, but that’s what makes it so exciting. I’ve recently put together a list of organizations, conferences, books, blogs, articles and other resources for people interested in learning more about the world of social innovation. This list exists on the Resources page of our website.

This is really only a beginning list, and I’d love your help in adding to it. If you see something missing, either an item or a whole category, please let me know in the comments to this post, in the contact form on the Resources page itself, through Twitter or Facebook.

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The Risk of Small Thinking

Nonprofit leaders sometimes suffer from small, or short-term, thinking. It makes sense that they would. The sector’s funding, structures and standards are set up to encourage, if not reward, small, risk-averse thinking. But small thinking can actually be a bigger risk to an organization and ultimately to the solution it exists to achieve. To really reach solutions, at the scale that we increasingly need, nonprofit leaders must break free from short-term thinking and lead by example into the world of big, long-term, game-changing approaches.

Here are few ways that small thinking actually jeopardizes a nonprofit and the solution it is working towards:

  • Not creating a growth plan when there is obvious need for the solution. Someone started a nonprofit for a reason–a need existed. Either the nonprofit is working to significantly get rid of that need, or they are just getting by. I understand that we are in the midst of a recession, but if you don’t have a big vision and big, bold plans to get there, who will be inspired to invest in a big way?

  • Not pushing your donors to give much, much more. Connected to creating bigger plans is stretching your donors further. Nonprofits at times seem afraid to upgrade donors. They are happy if a donor simply returns for another year. But with a little research into the capacity of a donor, and a compelling plan for what you would do with an increased investment, the money is sure to follow.

  • Not adequately investing in an earned income stream with a demonstrated market. A nonprofit may have done the research and made an attempt at selling a new product or service, but they are afraid of taking the plunge and significantly going after that market. The end result is that a competitor finds the market the nonprofit identified and the opportunity is gone.

  • Not hiring, and paying for, the best and brightest staff available. Sometimes nonprofit organizations pay salaries well below the going rate, even within the nonprofit sector. It is no surprise, then, that the staff they do recruit lack the experience, vision or skills to take the organization to the next level. If you want big results, you need to recruit people who have the ability to plan and execute in a big way.

  • Not investing in next generation tools for doing your work. So many nonprofit organizations exist on a shoe string, but the advent of free-ware and social media has leveled the playing field immensely. Now you can have a state of the art sales team for very little upfront cost. You can spread your message, garner support, find advocates, track them and customize your communication with them all for the investment of some staff time. Climb on board this new train, experiment and see where it leads.

These are challenging times, to be sure. But the worst thing to do is to lock yourself in a box of your own making. Challenge your donors, your board, your staff, your volunteers to do more, to be more, to achieve more. Paint the big picture, instead of the small one, and see where it leads.

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In the Trenches Raising Growth Capital: An Interview with Anna Land

In this month’s Social Velocity interview we are talking with Anna Land, founder of Heart House, a nonprofit after-school program for low-income children with some pretty impressive results and big plans for growth.

Anna and her board are looking to expand Heart House to 5 Texas cities and increase the number of kids served by almost 20 times in the next 10 years. She is currently shopping her growth plan around to philanthropists. Anna has some interesting insights about raising nonprofit growth capital, particularly from philanthropists who have never heard of the concept.  Full disclosure: Social Velocity helped Anna put together her growth capital pitch to prospective funders last year.

You can read our past Social Velocity interviews here.

Nell: You started Heart House several years ago and had great success in Austin and Dallas, serving 500 children each year. What made you suddenly think about going statewide and growing the program to 9,000 children by 2020?

Anna: The leadership has been thinking about this since 2004 when we were at our 4 year mark and felt that we had some compelling, consistent data that indicated that we were on to something, and perhaps should begin working on replicating and scaling to serve more children.

In 2005 I was selected for the Community Sabbatical Research Leave Program, created and administered by the Humanities Institute at The University of Texas, which provided time, resources and faculty advisors in order to study effective growth strategies of successful nonprofits.  I was fortunate to be paired with the perfect mentor, Dr. Sarah Jane Rehnborg of the LBJ School of Public Affairs. We interviewed 10 regional and national organizations at both the headquarters and local levels to discover best practices and essential infrastructure elements.

Next, the staff of Heart House articulated our core values, our vision for the future, and a set of minimum quality standards.  We also began the ever-expanding work of codifying our model.  We plan to complete our “Heart House in a Box” in time for our 3 new centers scheduled to open in 2011.  We also created the Gateway database which allows us to track weekly data across multiple sites.  The Webber Family Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the KLE Foundation funded this early capacity work.

Next, in 2008, the KDK-Harman Foundation convened four organizations to develop their growth plans in a peer group environment.  It was fabulous to work alongside Maile Broccoli-Hickey from English at Work, Melanie Moore from Badgerdog Publishing, and Kathrin Brewer from Austin Partners in Education.

And that’s the point in time where I met you, Nell.  The KDK-Harman Foundation paired Heart House with Social Velocity, and you worked with me to turn our growth plan into a growth pitch.  My mentor, Gregg Burt, serial entrepreneur and CEO, agreed to chair the statewide expansion initiative.

Nell: You are currently out raising growth capital, which is a pretty foreign concept to most philanthropists. How are you faring? Is the concept gaining some traction?

Anna: It’s certainly true that growth capital is still a new concept in Central Texas but I’m hearing more and more these days about the need for this investment – that’s encouraging to me.  I think this evolution is thanks to influence from two sectors:  1)  emerging philanthropic funding models from the East and West coasts, and 2) the vibrant VC community in Austin.

In his Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Money to Grow On,” William Foster suggests that grantmakers follow the approach of venture capitalists when making investments: high performing organizations with proven success should be rewarded with funds needed for ramp-up and to achieve long-term social change.  It may feel that Central Texas is slow to embrace this philosophy, but when I consider the relatively young age of Central Texas foundations, operating with little or no staff, we have some true thought leaders who are actually evolving rapidly in “foundation time.”

So, how are we faring?  Pretty good – we have 40% of the investment needed to get us to the point where the model no longer needs outside investment to support expansion efforts.   We believe we can fill the gap with a small group of investors.

Nell: What do you do to overcome discouragement when you meet with potential funders who don’t understand what you are trying to do? How do you motivate yourself to continue to go out there day after day to raise growth capital?

Anna: I believe that this growth is meant to be.  I believe there are plenty of funds available for Heart House to serve 18x+ more children.  I believe our expansion is a vision and a promise that God has put in our hearts.  And I believe that we can achieve what we can conceive.

The visualization I keep front of mind is that of walking across a vast ocean.  When I and my team walk forward with confidence, the stones rise up in front of us to form the next steps of the bridge.  When we stop walking due to fear, the stones stop rising.  Efforts to monkey around with the walk too far ahead of us also are unsuccessful.  We have a clear sense of direction and purpose, but we do not have to control every element and form the path takes because we know that it will all work out the way it is supposed to.

Doing our part is an important part of this philosophy.  We must remain abundance-minded, we must work hard every day to keep the trust of the donors and the families we serve, and we have to inspire and influence all that we come in contact with.

Naturally, as a human, I have days where I am discouraged, tired or fearful, but when I stay in abundance, finding this capital becomes a combination of a hunt and a matchmaking game.  When a donor says no, I mentally thank them for being one more no that puts me one step closer on the path to the perfect donor.  And when I feel particularly sorry for myself, I reread the biography of someone like Elizabeth I or John Adams.  What do I have to fear compared to the challenges they faced?   I am lucky to be able to do this fun and engaging work alongside such talented and inspiring cohorts.

Nell: What do you think holds other nonprofits with a great model back from undertaking dramatic growth?

Anna: Fear is the biggest growth inhibitor.  If it has been determined that growth is a sound strategy, but the leadership does not want to undertake that growth, I would say that that leadership believes that the risks of growth– real or perceived – outweigh the reward.  The larger your vision, the larger your exposure to failure – sometimes very public failure.  An organization has to be ready for grand success as well as some skinned knees.

Other growth inhibitors can be broadly categorized as lack of financial capital or human capital.  Specific to the Heart House model we have:

  • Lack of available space that meets our minimum clubhouse location standards
  • Lack of efficient and scalable infrastructure — To date, Heart House has put 85% of its policies, procedures, and practices into our “Heart House in a Box” implementation kit.  However, we still must refine and tighten the remaining infrastructure elements by end of 2011.
  • Lack of funding specifically for growth groundwork, quality control, and other central services, often thought of as “overhead” by philanthropic funders (but not business funders)

Nell: What does it take to prepare an organization for growth? What are the elements required to scale?


  • Leadership with vision, accountability and integrity
  • Commitment to and resources devoted to maintaining the highest quality across the organization
  • Repeatable processes and procedures
  • Efficient and scalable infrastructure that supports dramatic growth
  • Broad, diverse and sustainable funds for growth
  • Recognizable and influential brand presence

Nell: How do you balance the day-to-day running of your nonprofit with your other full time job of planning, raising money for and executing growth?

Anna: I tried that for a while, and it was unmanageable.  We now have city leaders (known locally as executive directors) that report to me directly, and manage the day-to-day operations and fundraising, while I and a small staff plan, raise money for, and execute on the critical elements listed above.

Nell: What needs to change in the nonprofit sector and in the philanthropy that funds it in order for more growth of successful solutions to happen?

Anna: Putting in place the strategy, infrastructure, funding, and, above all else, the leadership required successfully scale organizations.  Why is the investment in growth seen as “overhead” for nonprofits, but a no-brainer for for-profit companies?   As Nancy Roob and Jeffrey Bradach point out in their article, “Scaling What Works”, the effect of this bias is “an organizational form of chronic fatigue syndrome that burns out nonprofit leaders and compromises their ability to address social problems…There is no more powerful way to address many of society’s most important challenges than to harness what we now know works and make sure those solutions reach those who need them.”

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