From Crazy Ideas to Social Innovation Breakthroughs

Dec 5, 2011 3:00 PM ET

From Crazy Ideas to Social Innovation Breakthroughs

Last week, in the hotbed of innovation, start-ups, and entrepreneurship, 300 changemakers from the corporate, public and nonprofit sectors gathered at the Social Innovation Summit in Palo Alto.

One clear theme stemming from the Summit was that continued innovation (and knowledge-sharing) is needed to solve the world’s largest social problems, ranging from education to healthcare to sustainability. And with more limited resources from governments, the role of nonprofits and the private sector – working in partnership – has become more important than ever in driving change. During a panel with leaders from the Silicon Valley, including Intel and Microsoft, Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of The X PRIZE Foundation, astutely noted: “The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s just a crazy idea.” So how do those crazy ideas become breakthroughs? And how do breakthroughs lead to impact? Below are the 5 key themes (and tips) we saw emerge from the event that help answer these questions.

  1. Think big and then make it even bigger. Entrepreneurs are known for thinking big, and social entrepreneurs are no exception. Scott Harrison, who founded charity: water wanted to tackle what he saw as the biggest problem – unsafe water, which contributes to 88% of disease in the world. And to talk about impact, Harrison’s nonprofit has raised over $40 million to reach more than 2 million people through 4,200 water projects in 17 countries over the past 5 years. In 2010, charity: water achieved 85% growth, nearly doubling their ability to impact the water crisis. Harrison’s goal now is even bigger – he wants to raise $1 billion for clean water. So what makes charity: water attractive to corporate partners like Saks Fifth Avenue and The Macallan? Harrison has a bold vision and his organization provides demonstrated proofs of impact to show ROI. charity: water also has a proven track record of achieving scale which has enabled it to attract many additional supporters and partners.

  2. Content is king but metrics (and stories) make him powerful. As Jonathan Greenbladt, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation remarked “we manage what we measure.” Measuring social impact is an ongoing challenge for many nonprofits and CSR teams alike. It is compounded by the lack of good metrics when it comes to programs that focus on human capital, as Silicon Valley pioneer and philanthropist Mitch Kapor noted, and the fact that social change takes time. And don’t forget the often primary culprit: the time and expense that goes into actually tracking data. Greenbladt also noted “there can be tension between innovation and impact, and new and shiny might not always be the most impactful.” But for a nonprofit to prove ROI to its stakeholders and continue to receive funding for their programs, demonstrating progress – even in the short term – is important. Storytelling – especially “hopeful” storytelling – is a great way to show impact and progress beyond numbers (for more on this, be sure to read Marianne Allison’s blog post on this here).

  3. Behave like a business (a responsible one). With individual and corporate donors’ funds more strained than ever during our prolonged recession, there is a heightened demand (and scrutiny) for nonprofits to be transparent in running their organizations and make data-driven decisions. As Jen Boynton from Triple Pundit wrote in her blog post on the summit “when the tools of business are applied to NGO models, redundancies vanish.” Thinking like a business can also bring to light the innovation solutions that are needed to solve big problems. John Wood, who left a successful career at Microsoft to start Room to Read, made the point that businesses are not afraid to think big. At Microsoft, he was encouraged to take risks and have “BHAG” (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) and he took this same approach with Room to Read, which has benefitted more than 6 million children in the last decade.

  4. Flaunt failure. Given the pressure to demonstrate impact and effectiveness, most nonprofits only want to talk about the good stuff. Yet, where the social innovation community can benefit society the most is learning about each other’s failures in order to not repeat mistakes. Jacqueline Fuller, Director of Charitable Giving and Advocacy at Google, said she looks for nonprofits who share Google’s “fail fast” motto and likes to see engineers and developers in the C-suite because they are so used to things breaking or evolving constantly. A risk-taking mentality is also what makes young entrepreneurs like Andrew Yang, who founded Venture for America, ideal leaders of truly innovative nonprofits. More companies and donors should encourage nonprofits not to be afraid to fail and to share their failures as much as their successes.

  5. Be social. Charles Best, founder and CEO of, noted that being “social” is in the organization’s DNA: “We do everything we can to make sure a donor feels like they didn’t simply transact a donation, but forge a relationship with the beneficiary.” With more than 1.9 million click throughs from Facebook last year, it’s no wonder that 50% of all public school teachers in the U.S. have used to fund a project. From fundraising to storytelling, social media continues to be a powerful (and affordable!) tool for nonprofits, social enterprises and companies. But as Charles Porch, who manages community programs for Facebook, said organizations “should lead with your voice and people” to be effective on social media. Being authentic and genuine drives true engagement and loyalty with audiences.

To see the robust Twitter dialogue from the Summit, check out #SIS11. Stay tuned for more information on the next Social Innovation Summit that will be hosted by Landmark Ventures at the United Nations in New York City, May 31, 2012 (follow #SIS12 on Twitter).