Jeff Leitner

Leitner is a founder and managing director of GreenHouse, The Center of Social Innovation. He is also Innovator in Residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Bretton Woods II Fellow at New America, and founder and director of UX for Good, Leitner founded and ran Insight Labs and social sector initiatives related to job training, youth development, public policy and basic human needs. He also founded and ran private sector consultancies oriented to public affairs and cause marketing, worked for fourteen years as a political strategist, lobbyist and public affairs consultant, and worked for seven years as a political and government affairs reporter. A more detailed bio is available here.

Typewriter repairmen

Maybe voting is played out. Maybe we’re ready to move beyond the confines of representative democracy. This is the fight we were trying to start on our one of regular appearances on WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station.

“We can finally stop electing middlemen. We have the tools and the inclination to scale Athenian democracy, where we actually represent ourselves,” Jeff Leitner said. “Think about it: we hate our politicians; we hate our elected officials; and Congress’s approval rating is negative 4. Some of them deserve our ire. Some of them are badly behaved. But mostly they’re just doing jobs we don’t need anymore, like typewriter repairmen.”

We suggested that we take all the technology and agency we’re currently spending to throw more effective tantrums and use it to figure out how to re-tool the political system.

We picked this fight with host Steve Edwards. Among our other appearances on WBEZ were our thoughts on the emerging idea bubble and Chicago’s social anxiety.

More broadly and more assertively

In 2014, GreenHouse was enlisted to be the first-ever Innovator in Residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work – the first-ever in a school of social work, the first ever in the social sciences and one of only a handful in any field in the U.S.

Here’s why we agreed: society desperately needs social workers. More precisely, society needs the kind of things social workers know about social context and human systems applied more broadly and more assertively.

The challenge was that social workers were ill-prepared to play that larger role. Overcoming the challenge required a culture change — in the field and in its professional education.

So far, so good. Recruited for this role by Dean Marilyn Flynn, our partnership with the school has been highly productive. Together, we have developed and launched the first-ever doctorate in social innovation, the first graduate program in nursing within a school of social work, and an award-winning masters fellowship in social innovation.

Birthplace of modern thinking



Chicago really, really wants you to believe it’s a world-class city. Hence, the failed bid to host the Olympics in 2016 and the successful bid to host the NATO Summit in 2012. The strategy appears to be to show how important the city is by showing how important its guests are.

But Chicago is already legitimately world-class. It is arguably the hub of modernity in the United States: the birthplace of modern thinking in science, literature, architecture, journalism and social justice.

“Why should NATO come here? Because NATO is re-thinking NATO,” Howell Malham Jr. said on one of our regular appearances on WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station. “Because NATO needs to break through, to think beyond what NATO already knows. What better place (to do that) than a place like Chicago?”

We worked this through on air with host Steve Edwards. Among our other appearances on WBEZ were our thoughts on the emerging idea bubble and the future of civic engagement.

Public practice

Increasingly, organizations tackling society’s most pressing problems are run by executives trained in business schools, where they receive no education related to social challenges, social dynamics or the social sector, generally. In response, GreenHouse helped design, develop and launch the nation’s first doctorate in management, leadership and social innovation – at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

The professional doctorate requires students to complete coursework in social and public sector leadership, social sector finance, public discourse, program design and evaluation and social innovation – predicated on GreenHouse’s original work in this area. Students are required to substantively address one of 12 grand challenges facing society, ranging from the human cost of climate change to the impact of stigma.

In its capacity as Innovator in Residence, GreenHouse also developed curricula and content, including casebooks and videos, which are used by faculty and students throughout the program.

Relationship Rx

Amidst all the talk of new drugs and breakthrough technologies, many people forget that relationships are the unassailable key to medical care. We dug deep into those relationships in a couple of projects, including one profiled in Harvard Medical School News.

The subject of the story was our work with Family Van, a Harvard-based mobile health clinic serving disadvantaged neighborhoods in the Boston area. In that work, we learned that what made Family Van – and actually, all mobile health clinics – successful was not the way the vehicles traveled from community to community, but the kind of relationships they formed while they were there.

“If the systems in the medical field understand that medicine is more effective in a relationship between a caregiver and a patient,” Jeff Leitner said in the piece, “they will embrace it as a challenge they face and be more willing to utilize mobile medicine to its fullest.”

We also examined medical relationships – specifically, those driven by the patients – in our work with a health care start-up. We expanded on our work in this area through development of the advanced practice nursing program at the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and in Health Plus Social, our published inquiry into the social determinants of health and professional education.

Flash mob for good



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.

Throes of idea-making

As a culture, we’re fetishizing ideas. Our thoughts, notions and insights are becoming increasingly precious – served up at conference after conference like haute cuisine. You’d think it would be a great turn of events for the folks behind Insight Labs, but it all makes us a little crazy.

“Everybody’s innovating, everybody’s iterating, everybody seems to be in the throes of idea-making. That’s an awful lot of thought leadership going around,” Howell Malham Jr. said on one of our regular appearances on WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station.

“There are people talking about ideas. There are people talking about the idea of ideas. But there doesn’t seem to be anything significant happening.” We said the real problem is the opportunity cost – what we’re not doing when we’re all together because we’re so busy applauding each other for presenting ideas.

Among our other appearances on WBEZ were our thoughts on the future of civic engagement and Chicago’s social anxiety.

Take note

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.

UX for Good, which won the user experience design industry’s top award for our work in New Orleans, has also tackled challenges related to schools and genocide museums.