Andrew Benedict-Nelson is a founder and managing director of GreenHouse. Drawing upon his background as an historian and journalist, he has since 2011 worked with his colleagues to deepen his understanding of social norms and social change across a wide variety of sectors. As an Innovator-in-Residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, he has played a key role deploying these ideas in the education of future advocates for the greater good. In particular, he has worked to integrate insights into the social determinants of health into the education of health care professionals through the development of the first advanced practice nursing program in a school of social work, which launched in 2016. A writer and editor, his work has appeared in the LA Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and other venues.
Music is so ubiquitous in New Orleans that it feels like a natural resource. But every note of every song is the product of somebody’s hard work, and most of those somebodies are getting a raw deal.
We tackled this problem as part of UX for Good, the initiative GreenHouse developed with Jason Ulaszek. Together, we enlisted a dozen of the country’s best user experience designers to join us, music industry executives, local performers and leaders of community organizers in figuring out how to improve musicians’ quality of life.
Our final report read: “To maintain the culture of music, musicians need access to different resource sets than other participants in the economy and social safety net. If we want musicians to keep doing the things musicians do, we need to design solutions that are compatible with the way musicians must live.”
We went on to detail several solutions, from re-tooling tipping to building new technologies for music career management. Our findings related to tipping spawned several new companies, through which musicians can automate tips from their fans.
Society is vastly underestimating the potential of the humanities to help solve its most difficult problems. Worse still, the social norms of universities persuade the best-trained humanists that they can only work on problems that perfectly match the narrowest version of their expertise.
We did our best to blow up this myth at the Humanities Without Walls pre-doctoral workshops in 2015 and 2016, working with humanists from 15 research universities to tackle society’s wicked problems, including electoral reform, the social impact of driverless cars and the American way of dying.
After our work together, a participant captured our perspective beautifully, writing that the humanities “give us access to how we think about things. Humanities are adept at giving us insight into the unknown, allowing us to make decisions in the face of the unknown. Having an advanced degree in the Humanities also means that you have dived deeper – in short, the deeper you go, the better you are at navigating the unknown.”
The workshops emerged in part from work we did with the state humanities councils of Illinois and Indiana. The content is based on our original framework for social innovation, which we’re integrating into a range of professional education – most notably the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation at USC.
Innovation is hard work, particularly inside organizations that aren’t equipped to have disruptive ideas or to bring them to life. But that work gets even harder when the instigator has no organizational authority.
That’s why we developed the COBI Fellows Program, a pilot at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work to prepare graduate students to lead innovation on day one of their careers.
In its first year, the program won the SAGE/CSWE Award for Innovative Teaching in Social Work Education. From the award announcement: The program “provides a framework for infusing innovative practices in organizations, and engages participants in an interactive experience designed to drive change in social service organizations.”
After years of muddled democratization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American political class needed a new way to talk about sharing the virtues of representative government abroad. So we set out to concoct one, seeking inspiration in the logic model of venture capitalism.
VCs, we observed, place small, well-timed bets to realize big returns. Working with democracy advocates at the U.S. State Department and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, we identified several key ways in which a new model for democratization could borrow ideas from Silicon Valley.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson laid out the key traits that both democratization and venture investing require in a piece for GOOD Magazine: investing in many different projects with a very long time horizon; investing in ways that help make sense of failure, particularly by recouping non-traditional returns like relationships and knowledge; and investing in ways that advance the state of the art, incorporating those advances into future efforts.
We further concluded that the proper place for those investments was civil society. Within a week, the idea was being considered at the White House as a way to guide future U.S. efforts.
There has been an explosion in programs to support social entrepreneurship. From business schools to design academies to digital collectives, everyone is trying to equip a new generation with the tools and competencies they need to “start something.”
But how do these prospective entrepreneurs know what’s really worth starting?
That was at the center of our project with Echoing Green, a pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship. We concluded that while startup skills are nice, social entrepreneurs really need a way to discern a clear calling or to develop a coherent theory of change – long before they apply for 501(c)3 or B Corp status.
“Early proponents of the idea of social entrepreneurialism noticed the similarities between the way these folks pursue their dreams and the spirit that animates young companies,” Andrew Benedict-Nelson said in a GOOD Magazine piece about the project. “As a result, nonprofits and universities launched programs that seek to equip young people with similar skills.
“But without a persistent desire to do good, a social entrepreneur is little more than a glorified grant writer. There are plenty of people with strong callings who will never found a nonprofit, but instead realize their desire to do good in some other arena. We need to maximize the number of individuals actively pursuing their callings to do good, no matter what form their careers might take.”
This was a foundation of our work at USC, where we helped launch the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation.
There are a handful of essential questions that every organization – certainly, every organization taking on social challenges – must answer regularly and honestly: Are we solving the right problem? Have we outlived our usefulness? Is it possible we’re pursuing the wrong core strategy?
But that’s much, much easier said than done. For one, the key actors in any successful organization have bought in to its strategy, necessarily giving up the objectivity required for rigorous self-examination. For two, tackling questions is dangerously disruptive, introducing discomfort and insecurity among staff, volunteers and boards of directors.
This is why GreenHouse principals launched Insight Labs as the first-ever philanthropic think tank. Between 2010 and 2014, we we enlisted more than 750 big thinkers from business, government, philanthropy, academia and the arts to tackle the foundational challenges facing 45 public, private and social-sector institutions.
The Labs became best known for our novel approach: invite a dozen or so subject matter experts to tackle a challenge in which they did not have expertise; keep the invite list secret from even the participants until the project was launched; and do most of the work in a three-hour flurry. It was most aptly described as “the love child of a think tank and flash mob for good.”
Our first effort was on behalf of what is now Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, whose nearly billion-dollar capital campaign had stalled in the wake of the 2008 recession. Together, we deconstructed the ground-breaking engagement strategy of Barack Obama’s first run for president, and mapped it to the potential, expanded role of children’s hospitals in society.
Over the next 60 months, we convened brain-trusts at the request of groups as diverse as NASA, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. State Department, the TED Conferences, Boeing and Starbucks. Our approach was explored in books and magazines, including Forbes and Fast Company.
There is an entertaining story about GreenHouse, plans for a global network of high net-worth philanthropists, a professional intuitive, a renowned scholar and a ski chalet in the French Alps. But it’s the kind of story from which very little useful can be learned and that requires a leisurely evening and cocktails.