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Social Entrepreneurship

Struggling to Innovate: Together We Stand

Takeaways from a discussion on the promises and perils of innovation in the social sector.

Practitioners from the social and development sectors often struggle to translate research findings into organizational realities. Recently, I and other academics met with social sector practitioners in Berlin to discuss our thoughts and experiences on innovation.

One focus of our discussion was the increasing pressure to innovate in the social sector. Many grant-funded organizations felt pushed by funders to innovate, assuming “the more, the better.” Meanwhile, funders felt dissatisfied with the lack of progress on tackling social problems and, at the same time, under pressure to innovate themselves. We even debated whether we need more innovation in the social sector.

We discussed these and other issues at length—here are the highlights:

Unless you can make innovation productive, don’t do it.

Christian Seelos, a visiting scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and co-author of “Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail,” described innovation as risky and potentially wasteful. He suggested that many problems require not new innovations, but rather improvements on what organizations already offer and a focus on scaling. This notion resonated well with the audience and sparked further conversation during the breaks.

Different types of innovation require different performance measurements.

Iftekhar Enayetullah, a co-founder and director of the Bangladeshi waste management organization Waste Concern, reflected on how it took his organization seven years to scale a single intervention in one city. During that time, it was not easy to succumb to multiple evaluations from different parties. Some funders, he found, pushed their own specific metrics, making it difficult and time-consuming for the organization to implement them alongside metrics pushed by other partners.

Alnoor Ebrahim, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, saw a problem in using the same performance measurement systems for different types of innovation: If the purpose of explorative innovation is to try to find solutions, he said, organizations need to experiment and fail—something that performance measurement can constrain. But once organizations test different solutions and establish models, they can move to incremental innovation and use tougher performance metrics to improve efficiency.

Internal innovation structures may be useful.

Imran Matin, a director at Save the Children International, reflected on his former role as head of research and evaluation at BRAC. An unusual kind of organizational unit in the social sector, his division played a critical role in BRAC’s growth during the mid-80s, allowing for in-house piloting and evaluations of BRAC interventions and providing evidence for which interventions should be scaled. Imran also described how BRAC’s resourcing structure allowed flexible resource allocation—in his opinion, one of the most important factors enabling innovation.

Innovation for the sake of pleasing funders is not sustainable.

As I mentioned above, we talked a lot about how some social sector organizations are under pressure from funders to “appear” innovative—as Ebrahim put it, “Funders want to sponsor sexy innovations.” But Enayetullah warned that innovating for the sake of pleasing funders will not make an organization sustainable. In Bangladesh, Waste Concern focused on innovating to solve specific problems versus to seek funding; it created innovations that would have long-term impact. Aravind, the famous eye care system in India, which has been up and running since 1976, came up as another example of an organization that introduced innovation to solve a problem rather than gain attention.

You are not the only one under pressure.

Foundation and development agency leaders explained that while they want to support innovative projects, they also need innovate within their own often large and established organizations—a tricky thing. One leader shared how his organization rejected a new idea simply because there was no accounting cost center code to classify it under! The good news is that these leaders are now establishing internal units dedicated to innovation (for example, the innovation lab started last year by the German Development Cooperation, GIZ) and allowing their employees to dedicate time to creativity.

As a researcher, you need to engage and deliver.

As an academic, I wanted to understand how to make my research useful to practitioners and paid a lot of attention to their suggestions. The main piece of advice that emerged was to engage with organizations more deeply—to identify real problems instead of defining research questions. Unfortunately, for researchers, spending extensive time in the field is not always easy. They are judged in some measure by the number of journal publications they produce, not how much time they spend in the field. Even if they do find ways to dedicate time to fieldwork, organizations are not always able or willing to engage with them.

Social sector practitioners are often confused about what research entails, so researchers should try to explain their work up front and also understand that organizations may not be able to wait two years for research output. One practitioner shared the idea of establishing a “helpdesk” for development organizations, where a panel of experts could provide quick input and advice into ongoing projects and emerging challenges. Dieter Zinnbauer of Transparency International introduced us to his organization’s 900-member-strong Anti-Corruption Research Network, set up to connect practitioners and researchers.

These are just some of the themes that emerged from our discussions. We hope this conversation can continue and that together, as researchers and practitioners, we can find new ways of moving forward.

This discussion took place on October, 11, 2013, and was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. We thank our host, the Hertie School of Governance, as well as the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society for facilitating the event.

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