Lessons from One Social Entrepreneur’s Mission What is Social Innovation, Really?

By Mark Wasson, Policy and Research Intern

July 7, 2016

I came to the Beeck Center looking for a non-profit dedicated to making sustainable, outcomes-focused change. The focus on social impact and innovation was a major draw for me, but I didn’t know what it meant, not really. This seemed like an easy fix. “Social innovation” is a term used by several modern NGOs, so the definition naturally would be available in a number of different places. Problem is, that’s not the case. I found that many organizations and websites don’t share a universal definition for the term, and those that do sometimes contradict or confuse more than they help. I began to feel as though I would have to define an entire lexicon of NGO buzzwords if I ever wanted to figure out what social innovation was.

While there is common ground, I found a number of definitions as I scanned the organizations in this emerging field. The Social Innovation Fund, a program of the White House, partners with organizations, both private and public, doing social enterprise work that could fit several different definitions, but its personal definition is that which will “achieve faster, more lasting progress.” The Stanford Social Innovation Review, a major voice in the sector, avoids boxing itself into a single definition, instead acting as a support to all the other research centers. Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation weighs in, calling social innovation “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions.” The twice annual Social Innovation Summit offers a simple but elegant definition: “the next big idea.” Ideo, a design firm focused on interesting new ideas, defines social innovation as a way of making change in “underrepresented” communities.

With no universal term to sum up social innovation, I knew that in my own work at the Beeck Center, I would have to develop my own definition. While there is so much that goes into it, I did eventually come to a definition of what I think it is, at its core. It is a way of looking at the enduring problems we face domestically and internationally in new ways, seeking the sustainable solutions, and getting everyone involved to build the solutions bottom-up, from individuals up to governments.

How do we actually put this into practice? We start from research, asking ourselves What are the problems? What solutions have worked in the past? How can we build systemic solutions that really meet the needs of citizens? We have a team comprised of experts in government and non-profit sectors, in addition to talented student researchers. Once we have the research, much of which we publish in our reports, we move on to building a conversation with policymakers, business leaders, community members, and philanthropies to drive change on the ground. The Beeck Center’s connection to Georgetown University places us in the perfect environment for outreach. We provide everything from classes to conferences in our continual effort to get the next generation of leaders to positively transform the social sector.

So, what is social innovation, really? Well, it’s a lot of things, but if there is anything you take away, let it be the idea of changing lives. It can be so easy to get lost in all the buzzwords of this sector rather than focus on the reason that we do what we do: to do what has never been done, to leverage human ingenuity, to make lives better.

Mark Wasson is a senior studying economics and creative writing at Pepperdine University. He is a summer intern at the Beeck Center, providing editing consultation, promoting social impact work, and conducting research on key topics such as civic engagement.

Originally published at beeckcenter.georgetown.edu on July 7, 2016.

Developing new solutions to old problems.

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