Insight Labs

In 2010, GreenHouse principals launched the first-ever philanthropic think tank. In only five years, Insight Labs engaged more than 750 big thinkers from business, government, philanthropy, academia and the arts to solve problems on behalf of 45 public, private and social-sector institutions – tackling challenges as diverse as international diplomacy, healthcare, public education, social impact investing and cultural development.

Meet them where they live


Mobile clinics could play a transformative role in the health care system — and not just as roving emissaries for hospitals.

That was the conclusion we reached in our work with Harvard Medical School and its own mobile clinic, Family Van. We concluded that the real value of mobile clinics is the way they literally meet patients where they live, upending the social norms of medicine. This helps mobile clinics improve patients’ adherence to treatment and sense of agency in their own care – precious knowledge in a shifting health care system.

“Imagine that we could assign a very attentive graduate student to every mobile clinic” Andrew Benedict-Nelson said in a GOOD Magazine article about our work. “With enough data from a variety of settings, researchers could hypothetically identify the crucial ways in which these health workers help patients feel safe, empowered, and open to medical advice.”

The insights – also captured in an article in Harvard Medical School News – informed our work in the social determinants of health, including development of the graduate nursing program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Transcendent interest

The single most essential element of collaboration – of cooperative efforts at any scale – is an inadequately understood idea called transcendent interest. This is what GreenHouse unearthed at the request of the world-renown TED Conferences, which was looking to boost participation in and impact of its annual, global TED Prize.

“I’m not talking about a win-win, where our interests overlap. It’s something that lives up here – above our interests, a grander concern,” Jeff Leitner said in a subsequent address on transcendent interest to the Kellogg Innovation Network. “Let me tell you what it’s not: it’s not a homeowners’ association; it’s not the EU; and it’s not cooperation, in which I help you move your couch upstairs and you give me a beer. That’s a win-win. It’s not simply a sublimation of interests. It’s beyond that.”

GreenHouse has successfully isolated a few of transcendent interest’s key features. For example, transcendent interest requires suspension of individual identities; it renders original interests hollow and it utilizes an untapped element that wasn’t being accessed in previous interactions between the parties.

Inhuman capital

Everybody wants school reform. But decade after decade of public debate hasn’t brought us much closer to substantive change. It appears, at least to us, that the problem might be with the debate, itself.

That’s the conclusion we drew from a project called School Is Not School. We drafted and posted online an original, incendiary manifesto, which suggested the role for school ought to be building community. We collected a week’s worth of online comments, then analyzed those comments to see what we could learn from what well-intentioned people thought about the idea.

What we learned is that it’s nearly impossible to divorce the idea of school from human capital development, from preparing individual students for college or career. The social norms related to the purpose of school are pervasive and fixed.

From our report: “Right now, even advocates for greater community involvement in schools tend to view community as a mere external resource that supports schools’ essential activity of adding to students’ skills and knowledge – this human capital development is seen as what the school ‘is.'”

Place your bets

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.

Enlisted for the project by Dr. Tomicah Tillemann, with whom we also worked to design a new model for international organizations.

Persistent desire to do good

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.

The fourth R

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.

The patient protagonist

For decades, the ultimate authority in health care has been doctors or insurance companies. But research we did with a group of health entrepreneurs suggested that many of the most exciting potential developments in the future of medicine will be unlocked only when patients lead the way.

“For much of history, this was impossible because patients were – almost by definition – isolated, broken, and weak,” Andrew Benedict-Nelson wrote in our report. “But changes in the landscape of patienthood – most importantly patients’ newfound ability to act collectively – could make them the driving force behind improvements in health care in the 21st century.”

Evolving far beyond their current role as informed consumers, patients could advocate for systemic change and drive their own independent research agendas – provided the social norms of the health care system can keep up.

We’ve explored health care’s changing norms in several other projects including the launch of a nursing department at USC and our original publication Health Plus Social.

A view of the whole

Philanthropic foundations should seek a role more active than mere funders – and more noble than banks.

In a project conducted on behalf of Boeing Corporate Citizenship, we concluded that a foundation’s most important job is serving as the steward of a theory of change.

“One of the things that is most interesting about foundations is the ways in which they can be conscious and systematic about a larger ecosystem,” said Salin Geevarghese, a veteran of several large philanthropies who we consulted as part of the work. “They can see certain gaps in society and make themselves the players to move into those gaps. It’s a role that is not completely in the public realm and it’s not completely in the private realm. There are opportunities for extraordinary contributions to society.”

This unique view of the whole should be what drives strategy at foundations, not some false idea of return on investment. Besides, if every decision they make also gives us all insight into their theory of change, every dollar spent by philanthropies will generate much more value for the common good.