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This Is Social Innovation?

William A. Schambra

SUMMARY: In this piece, William Schambra takes a critical view of Stanford Universitys recently-launched magazine on the nonprofit sector, Stanford Social Innovation Review. Rather than showcase small, clever grassroots initiatives as examples of social innovation, SSIRs elegantly produced, glossy inaugural issue tends to confirm the view that social innovation comes from above—that it is driven from the top down by the largest and most sophisticated organizations in American society. Schambras review goes on to describe how real social innovation looks. The full text of this article, which appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Philanthropy magazine, can be found below.

I believe that most societal change begins when someone wakes up in the morning and is inspired or angry or otherwise determined to alter something in their world. This is the promising first line of an interview with Ford Foundation president Susan Berresford in the inaugural issue of the new journal Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), published by Stanfords business school.

Does the field of philanthropy studies finally have a journal that will locate American social innovation and creativity in the work of energetic, entrepreneurial individuals and scrappy, scruffy grassroots community groups? Not likely. By the time the first paragraph ends, Berresford has scurried back to more comfortable ground: We at the Ford Foundation, she says, frame most of what we do in terms of building fields of work; healthy fields need conceptual work and well-grounded research, and they need discussion about policymaking and best practice. While at its origins, philanthropy is simple and natural, it is a mistake to extrapolate from that to assume that what we do in foundations is easy. For Ford, as for most large foundations in America, philanthropy is clearly the work of experts and professionals, not of individuals, small donors, or grassroots groups.

The rest of SSIR’s elegantly produced, glossy inaugural issue tends to confirm the view that social innovation comes from above-that it is driven from the top down by the largest and most sophisticated organizations in American society, entering into elaborate partnerships among themselves, endlessly re-engineering their internal management processes, and strong-arming nonprofits into replications and “partnerships.” The opening Editor’s Note tips us off to this mega-institutional focus, affirming the magazine’s belief that “solving social problems will always require collaboration among nonprofits, corporations, foundations, and governments,” with the only debatable question being “which institutions, practices, activities, and collaborations are best for redressing social problems of various kinds.” Christine Letts and William Ryan of Harvard’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations suggest one such form of collaboration: “high engagement philanthropy.” Rather than accepting unsolicited proposals, they note, some innovative foundations now carefully select a handful of nonprofits that align closely with the foundation’s purposes, providing long-term funding as well as “strategy coaching.” The latter is designed to help “grantees improve their performance-by jointly setting goals, evaluating performance, and providing pressure and support to help the grantees achieve goals.” The authors admit that high-engagement relationships can be “difficult, stressful or contentious-usually because funders were not matching pressure with support.” When the “coach” is a multi-million dollar foundation and the “player” a financially hard-pressed nonprofit, it’s hard to avoid mental images of Ohio State’s tempestuous former football coach Woody Hayes roaming the sidelines and “providing pressure” to his players.

The Bridgespan Group’s Jeffrey Bradach looks out upon civil society’s “thousands upon thousands” of “cottage enterprises,” and sees mainly a “substantial loss to society overall,” as “time, funds, and imagination are poured into new programs that at best reinvent the wheel.” He recommends instead that resources be devoted to “franchising” the nation’s most successful social programs, packaging and transporting their “theories of change” to neighborhoods around the country like frozen burgers to so many fast-food outlets.

Lest there be any question about the SSIR’s pronounced tilt toward the interests of the larger foundations, the journal includes an article by Stanford Law School professor Michael Klausner challenging the recent studies from McKinsey & Company that, much to the consternation of the Council on Foundations, call for higher foundation pay-outs.

On the grantee side, the journal focuses on the concerns of mainstream, government-friendly nonprofits, as seen in its summary of a recent article from the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly which notes that the fate of new organizations is “highly dependent on their acquisition of stable funding, particularly public funds.” The only article that departs from the current fads and clichs of philanthropy is Jan Masaoka’s thoughtful dissent from the field’s expensive, time-consuming, and mission-distorting infatuation with program evaluation.

Why is so little attention given to genuine social innovation in a journal allegedly dedicated to the topic? The problem is that the journal, as with so much of social policy today, is not really concerned with civic engagement in social change, but rather with the delivery of social services as if they were widgets to be mass-produced on assembly lines overseen by efficiency experts. In this fashionable view, trained professionals and large, sophisticated organizations are always to be preferred to everyday, amateur citizens or grassroots groups. That’s why for SSIR writers, it’s a matter of indifference whether those professionals are located in government, business, or nonprofits, so long as they are brisk and efficient in executing their functions; and why a business school has decided it has so much advice to offer the field, since social policy involves nothing more than the business-like management of resources and personnel. And that is why, for all its professed interest in bridging the gap “between the academic community and practitioners,” the new magazine is likely to interest only large foundations with professional, academically trained staffs, and the growing number of academicians who study philanthropy professionally and need a venue for publishing their tenure-earning research. (Indeed, the first Ph.D. program for philanthropy studies was unveiled just as the SSIR was reaching desks.)

But what if we were to take seriously Susan Berresford’s initial notion that social innovation results when someone or some small group becomes sufficiently energized to try to alter something in the world? What if we were to search for social innovation in the realms of civil society beyond the gleaming chrome-and-glass doors of our towering public and private institutions? In the communities and neighborhoods closest to us, we would find everyday citizens “inspired or angry” enough to form their own small, civic organizations to tackle the social issues most important to them, whether it’s closing drug houses, cleaning up streets, starting schools, or mentoring children. This is seldom a smooth, efficient process, based on a proven, franchised “theory of change.” It typically involves a lot of deliberation, confusion, quarrelling, false starts, exhaustion, and, sometimes, even failure. Such groups form and reform, appear and disappear, and constantly “reinvent the wheel” as they try to do something they never thought they could do before, namely, take charge of their own lives and help their neighbor. There is little in the churning, murky world of grassroots civil society to attract the attention of a major foundation searching for high-engagement nonprofit partners. To them, all this amateurish commotion and inefficient duplication represent nothing but a “substantial loss to society overall.”

But in fact what we see here is nothing less than the constant rebirth of American democracy, as citizens refuse to be treated as the passive clients of social-service providers and instead come together in self-governing, democratic communities to solve their own problems their own way. Helping to cultivate this spirit of American self-governance could be the particular task and enormous contribution of small foundations and donor-advised funds. Modest donors are often rooted in-and by mission statement focused on-the same communities where civic activism crops up, and they possess the “local knowledge” necessary to recognize it and follow its inevitable fluctuations. They are unlikely to overwhelm, suppress, or distort the process of civic creativity that they are trying to cultivate. Their otherwise modest grants nonetheless loom large in the budgets of smaller civic groups and may be critical to their survival. Small foundations are not weighed down by a commitment to sophisticated, “scientific” philanthropy, and so may be willing to take risks on new, unproven, and as-yet unsteady grantees. And small donors are often looking for something more than a tax write-off, namely, an opportunity to become personally involved in community activism, which smaller civic groups will welcome.

For all their furrowed brows about the sad state of civic engagement in America, our largest foundations and the journals and intellectuals that study them are not really too concerned about cultivating genuine democratic vitality. Rather, they are focused on fine-tuning the provision of social services by society’s largest, least democratic institutions. For that purpose, it actually helps to have passive, grateful clients rather than obstreperous, self-assured citizens.

To find the genuine sources of social innovation, one need not comb through the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Just explore the neighborhoods nearest you, looking for the sudden, unpredictable, untidy bursts of energy that are the sure signs of democratic citizens at work.

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