A big, but unspoken, irony of social innovation

Social innovation in the nonprofit sector has gotten a ton of attention lately — new approaches to tackle persistent social challenges.  A big irony, however, is that a concept designed to help a lot of people through bold leadership is very limiting in who is able to actually lead.

If you’re a young leader with a new approach, resources are scarce.  And if you’re someone from a low income background who can’t borrow money from parents to pay rent, don’t have a well-connected network, or have massive student debt, how can you ever be expected to launch a new idea?

When I was starting my organization, I knew that I could fall back on family if things truly fell apart. I never wanted that to happen and didn’t work any less urgently, but I knew I wouldn’t “go hungry.” In fact at one point during the worst of the recession, I had to take a loan from a family member to keep my organization alive.  It sucked and it felt demoralizing, but I had a backstop.

Seth Godin, who I cite frequently, calls this the “privilege of risk” — and that’s something that many young leaders with important ideas and perspectives don’t have.

That’s a big problem on my levels:

1) The nonprofit sector is not cultivating diverse leadership that reflects the communities where new approaches are often needed most.

2) Many young leaders are systematically held back from putting their ideas and experiences into action.

3) We’re selling communities and the country short of breakthrough ideas.

Great innovations often come from employees at bigger companies.  They’re on the front lines of a particular field, they see an opportunity unmet, and they create a new company to seize it.

But young, energetic, talented leaders who come from the front lines of vulnerable communities and who have the perspective to create breakthrough services, too often don’t have the “privilege of risk.”

A few ideas on how we can change that:

1) Dramatically increase organizations like Echoing Green that seed new social change ventures with capital and support.

2) More foundations could create pools of money designed for first-time social entrepreneurs.  So many foundations require some inside connection, a track record, and a bigger budget.  Parameters have purpose and foundations need a focus — I totally get that.  But big foundations that can afford risk should take more risk on diverse, young leaders.

3) Big nonprofits could incubate new ideas that fit their mission — an office, advisers, a little seed capital, and a support network go a long way.

In Hollywood, it’s expected that only 1 of 5 movies will do well; in tech startups, angel investors know there’s a small chance of success (1 in 20? probably less).

It’s okay to take risks on movies and tech, but risk capital to tackle pressing social challenges from leaders who might be the best equipped — but least resourced — is too often neglected.  And it’s not for a lack of money in philanthropy — there’s plenty.

We need to keep innovating in our communities, but need to be sure all the right people have the opportunity to lead.

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4 responses to “A big, but unspoken, irony of social innovation”

  1. Laura Norvig says :

    Another “innovative” (are we tired of that word yet?) way to get folks started is crowd-funding. StartSomeGood is one – are there others? http://www.quora.com/Is-there-a-Kickstarter-to-help-launch-non-profits

  2. Zach Maurin says :

    Laura — good call. Crowd-funding can be helpful — any little bit helps. Though I still think we need professional philanthropy to do more and write bigger checks and support the founders with more than money.

    • Laura Norvig says :

      Agreed. Nonprofit/social entrepreneur/social innovation incubators, along the model of Y-combinator and other tech start-up incubators. Do you know of any?

      • Zach Maurin says :

        There’s Echoing Green, Draper Richards, the new Points of Light Civic Accelerator, and probably a handful more. But overall, far too few. If you compare the ecosystem of early funding options for for-profits vs nonprofits, it’s a remarkable disparity. Needs to change.

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