Why Social Innovators Need Government
There’s been an interesting dialogue between The Bridgespan Group’s Daniel Stid and Social Solutions’ Patrick Lester following Stid’s thought-provoking Washington Post essay, “Dismantling the Social Services Industrial Complex.”
The major point of contention is whether or not social services organizations have the power or desire to impede social innovation. Lester contends that while a self-interested “social services industrial complex” exists, it’s less powerful than Stid claims. I agree, which is why Robert Egger’s work advancing CForward and the recent merger between the National Council of Nonprofits and the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest has been so fascinating. After all, social nonprofits scrape together government funding year after year and social services organizations certainly aren’t willful deterrents of social innovation. If government were to stop funding ineffective social services program, would the money be reinvested into innovative, high-performing ones? And how would those programs be identified?
But where Lester really hits the nail on the head is his observation that too many in the social innovation community have ignored the need for innovation and advocacy. Lester’s perspective echoes that of Living Cities CEO Ben Hecht who favors mainstreaming social innovation through the public sector. Lester writes,
Simply put: if you want to see more good ideas taken to scale, then you need government funding, and for that you need to fund solid policy analysis and advocacy. This is a role that foundations and/or wealthy high-tech philanthropists need to fill.
Unfortunately, for the most part, they have not. Both seem uninterested — foundations because they have traditionally shied away from it, and high tech philanthropists probably because they made their money in the private sector and seem allergic to government.
For the sake of our children’s future, this needs to change. Foundations and philanthropists need to step forward and fund not just innovation, but advocacy too. Only then will our best ideas be taken to scale.
As management consultant and impact investor Thien Nguyen-Trung argues, the role of social innovators is to “introduce a disruptive, innovative way of achieving social impact in the most sustainable way possible.” Social innovators should view themselves as entrepreneurs looking for a successful exit–and government as the buyer or “impact offtaker” that can take their innovation to scale, and have permanent, lasting impact.
If truly motivated to achieve impact and scale, funders of social innovation must overcome their aversion to government and support innovation advocacy, because even the largest, most efficient social enterprise is unequipped to achieve significant scale. Social innovators, foundations and philanthropists need to help government change the way it does business.