Marcia Stepanek is a regular contributing writer for Justmeans and co-founder of Contribute Media. She also is Publisher of Cause Global, a group blog about the use of social media in social advocacy and innovation. Previously, she was executive editor and co-founder of CIO Insight Magazine and Web strategies editor at BusinessWeek, as well as the national economics correspondent and special proje...
White House Fund Wants More "Local" Social Innovation
Wanted: more "local" problem-solving pitches from social enterprises, social innovators and nonprofit activists to help Americans in need, says Sonal Shah, the chief of President Obama's new $50 million Social Innovation Fund.
Speaking yesterday at Harvard's Social Enterprise Conference, Shah told attendees in a keynote address that the Fund has been getting many pitches recently, but mostly for problem-solving initiatives geared to the developing world. Meanwhile, there haven't been many pitches about solving problems in America, she said, and her team wants to see more ideas that can be replicated across the United States. Social entrepreneurs looking at (and working in) the developing world "need also to apply their ideas to the poor in America," she said.
The remarks were welcomed by many attendees. One, New Orleans-based blogger Nathan Rothstein, wrote today in True/Slant that ever since Hurricane Katrina exposed extreme poverty in the United States, cause activists, social innovators and policymakers in America have been forced to confront tough questions, including: "What does it say about us as Americans if we let fellow citizens suffer like this?" and "Do we have the right to tell other countries how to solve their poverty problem when we have not figure it our for ourselves?" Those questions remain, Rothstein says, but many social problem-solvers have "moved on."
Said Shah:"We can't forget that the United States is a market for solutions."
In other highlights of Shah's talk:
* Shah said her team is looking at the work being done to create social capital markets, as well as new ways to encourage local communities in need of change to mobilize and create movements so that the government can help them. "I want to aggregate deal-flow for social investors," she said. "Who's with me?"
* She said metrics are key to measuring impact and shifting the status quo. "We need to track and aggregate micro trends," Shah said. Anecdotal impact measurements aren't enough. "Wal-mart shifts shelf space when it sees micro-trends. How do we do the equivalent in the social sector?'"
* Social entrepreneurs need to be more intentional around specific problem-solving initiatives, she said, and to go into service work "not for the sake of service but to see service as a way to get to a solution."
* Shah praised problem-solving prize competitions as powerful incentives for change. Rather than legislate, she said, we in government and business "should use more prizes to create communities of innovation and results."
* Shah said it's critical to get more people to serve their communities at a local level. "Can we solve the problems of our communities through service?"
* Shah cited the Text for Baby program in the United States that fights child mortality as an example of a way to use social media to engage the poor in local problem-solving. She said low-income communities in the United States tend to access information more often through text messages than over the Internet.
* Lauded local, cross-sector partnerships for being powerful change agents. She cited the Educate to Innovate pilot program as a way to bring together governments, companies, media, foundations and teachers together locally and effectively around a single cause.
Shah also talked about the importance of creating new social enterprises and nonprofits to create change in one localebut in a way that makes it possible for its results to be replicated elsewhere. "Replication is taking social innovation models and applying them to new markets," she said -- whether across American or a half world away.
And that works locally for the U.S. government, too. Shah said the $50 million Social Innovation Fund has inspired the Department of Labor to launch a fund of its own.