There is a troubling disconnect between social innovation theory and practice. In response, GreenHouse is developing the first-ever casebook for social innovation practitioners – leveraging the pedagogy currently used by universities to train professionals in law, medicine and business. We’re drawing on the best aspects of this tradition but making a crucial change: the problems we’re tackling will not be closed cases, but open questions facing society.
The casebook will be predicated on the social norms approach to social innovation, and will include in-depth exploration of innovation related to 15 social challenges, including mental health, childhood obesity, sexual assault, animal maltreatment, decarceration, foster care, refugees, disaster preparedness, homelessness, social isolation, and access to the legal system.
The casebook will be introduced at the University of Southern California, in the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation.
In 1919, when Jane Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize, social good was a relatively narrow domain – populated largely by progressive clergy and women like Jane, who were the forerunners of the modern field of social work. Today, nearly a century later, social good has exploded into virtually sector, industry and profession.
We’re out to determine where it’s going and how best to train professionals to lead it. In partnership with the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, we are engaging experts from around the world – in domains as diverse as technology, design and international movement-building – and connecting them to educators, who will grow the next generation of social good leaders.
This project is part of our efforts as Innovator in Residence, which includes development of a Master’s fellowship in social innovation and the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation – both at USC.
There is now widespread agreement that social determinants – factors like race, class and zip code – have greater influence on our health than does our biology. But the health care system has been slow to evolve, leaving providers ill-equipped to help patients and others in need.
GreenHouse has jumped into the void, developing the publication Health Plus Social to explore social determinants and the implications for the training of health care professionals. The publication is part of our efforts as Innovator in Residence to give shape to the new graduate nursing program at the University of Southern California, the first such program housed in a school of social work.
“The basic reason for the neglect of social determinants in health care is that the system is primarily set up to treat acute, biomedical problems,” wrote the report’s editor, Andrew Benedict-Nelson. “Substantial work remains if we hope to translate our understanding of social determinants into practical, specific protocols for care on the individual or community level.”
Challenges like this are now being tackled in inter-professional collaborations, such as one GreenHouse helped launch in summer 2016.
Since World War II, the United States has developed a powerful medical research enterprise centered on federal funding sources like the National Institutes of Health — often nicknamed “Big Science.” But the norms of Big Science will have to be adjusted if we’re going to help society’s most vulnerable people.
That was the conclusion we took away from the Islandwood Science in Nursing Roundtable, a three-day interdisciplinary gathering where we guided thinkers from nursing, social work, and public health as they reckoned with the social determinants of health. Working in teams, participants developed future scenarios for nursing science, targeting strategic milestones that would need to be achieved in coming decades if we are to address the American population’s most persistent inequities.
“Human subjects research seeks insights into standard models of human bodies and behaviors, just as we’ve always done with fruit flies and barnacles,” Andrew Benedict-Nelson wrote after the event. “But human beings aren’t barnacles — the people who are being left out of standard models matter. We need new ideas about how we can expand the vision of the sciences to include all the people they normally exclude.”
The event was part of our work developing the new graduate nursing program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and was guided by our research into the social determinants of health and professional education.
Ashoka, the organization famous for empowering changemakers throughout the world, sought to infuse empathy into the next generation of schoolchildren. But they found schools to be wary and teachers to be resistant.
We discovered that the key was uncoupling empathy from the curriculum and coupling it instead with what teachers do naturally: tracking and encouraging relationships among children. As one of our collaborators, Nina Rappaport, said: “We just need a fourth R. Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and relationships.”
This critical piece of context informed the Start Empathy toolkit Ashoka released the following year.
“Cultivating empathy and building up change-making skills in children and the adults modeling their behavior isn’t the result of a single exercise,” Ashoka’s Lennon Flowers told us about the toolkit. “We do have an extraordinary of concrete exercises that help you start today. But in the end, it’s not about that. It’s about being intentional in every conversation you have with every child, as well as your peers and administrators.”
The insights we developed with Ashoka greatly informed our later work on mindfulness education with the Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education. We also took up the theme of scaling social impact with Ashoka the following year.
You might think the best way to supercharge American entrepreneurialism is tax incentives or business education. But in our work with the University of Illinois, we discovered the most efficient way to increase the number of start-ups: relax immigration restrictions.
After investigating the key traits of entrepreneurs, we concluded that no group ticks as many boxes as immigrants from countries that are less free to countries that are more free.
“If there were some other measure – if we knew that left-handed people were more entrepreneurial – then I would say that we should hire more left-handed people or let more left-handed people into the country,” said University of Chicago professor Pablo Montagnes, whom we consulted on the project. “But we don’t have a measure like that. The measure we do have is a desire to take a risk and move to the United States for a particular reason. …
“The U.S. is best at creating these kinds of opportunities for people. If people want these kinds of opportunities, we should be the ones who let them take advantage of them. Often the immigration debate is about illegals stealing jobs from Americans. But entrepreneurship is about creating new jobs and new things that would not exist otherwise.”
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.