What is Social Innovation?

At innoFaith, one of our goals is to bridge faith communities to the social innovation ecosystem - the universe of non-profits, start-ups, education institutions, companies, government bodies, and others who are developing, studying, and implementing new responses to persistent social problems - and vice versa. But for many in institutions and communities of faith, social innovation is a new term, even if not a new concept. At innoFaith, we define it simply as the process of designing or iterating solutions to social problems through an approach that 1) considers problems systemically, 2) develops new strategies, and 3) creates sustainable social value.

Let’s take as an example a social issue that many urban congregations come face to face with: homelessness. Faithful and caring communities can and do respond in numerous ways to people living on the streets. In particular, we tend to take one of two common approaches:

1. Charity / direct service: People living on the streets are often cold, hungry, and alone. As faith communities, we provide food, clothing, showers, temporary shelter, and friendship to meet the immediate needs of the brother or sister at our doorstep. We also develop initiatives and organizations to meet these needs at scale through soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other social services.

When we provide food or shelter, we meet an immediate need, which is critical. If we do it well, we recognize a person’s humanity, build relationships, and learn about our neighbor’s reality. We should never underestimate the importance of that human-to-human engagement. But we are not addressing the underlying causes that lead people to homelessness. And power lies in the giver’s hands. We risk inadvertently cultivating dependency rather than autonomy, and the dignity that comes from autonomy.

2. Advocacy / activism: Recognizing the limits of charity, we might turn to advocacy. Homelessness can be caused or aggravated by government policies that privilege wealth or that fail to create effective supports for economically vulnerable citizens. So we organize, protest, and advocate for better policies - affordable housing, support services, job training, healthcare access.

When we do this well, we hopefully achieve policy changes that will reduce the number of people becoming homeless or the length of time they remain homeless, or at least improve the conditions under which they experience homelessness. We also build awareness and political will to address the problem and help people see it as an issue of the common good. But issue area advocacy can miss the forest for the trees, tackling one aspect of the problem while ignoring or missing others. It can also create or fall prey to entrenched ideologies on the political battlefield, limiting the opportunities for or scope of change. It can be slow and incremental, and policies can be reversed when elected officials change. Furthermore, when done from the framework of being “a voice for the voiceless,” which it often is, it can still disempower those it seeks to help.

Both charity and advocacy approaches are essential to social change work, but what if there were a different narrative that could free us from the limits of charity, on the one hand, and of ideology, on the other? That is the potential of social innovation.

Social innovation: Homelessness is a complex problem rooted in a number of factors—individual, cultural, economic, political. By looking at the problem systemically (rather than only a social services or policy problem), we start to see new strategies to address those factors that may have otherwise eluded us. And rather than just react to an immediate problem, we can create sustainable social value, meaning people and communities are empowered in new ways, or new partnerships are developed, or new roles are created such that there is long-term impact for society. The solutions may include aspects of charity and advocacy, but the goal is to solve the problem or transform one or more of the underlying factors.

It can mean redefining the problem. For instance, Miracle Messages was created based on the insight that in some cases, homelessness is not a problem of housing but one of isolation. Its network of volunteers and “digital detectives” leverage video and social media to help reconnect homeless individuals with their families and friends. Read more about their approach in this New York Times article.

It can mean changing the framework for solutions. The Full-Frame Initiative identified that the traditional framework for social services (that of fixing isolated problems like homelessness) was broken. They are positioning a new framework—fostering well-being—as a generative starting point to change the strategies and interactions of social service providers from short-term fixes to long-term change. Read more about their approach in this New York Times article series (Part 1 and Part 2).

It almost always means fostering collaboration, and not just with the usual suspects. Community Solutions is eliminating veteran and chronic homelessness in cities by using data tools (via partnership with a data visualization company) to create new collaboration across the different agencies and organizations addressing the issue (and already collecting data). Read more about their approach in this Fast Company article.

We don’t have to be liberal or conservative to engage in social innovation. And we don’t necessarily need new resources. We just have to believe that a problem like homelessness can be solved and want to solve it. If we aren’t actually experiencing the problem ourselves, we have to connect and empathize with and empower those who are. We have to do the same with all the stakeholders who are either contributing to the problem or trying to solve it, and those who don’t yet see themselves as stakeholders. We have to look for ways to re-purpose existing resources and re-define existing roles. We have to build bridges and collaborations and create new, maybe unlikely, allies. When we do this, we are innovators.

As innovators, let us be charitable but not constrain people by our charity. Let us be advocates but not ideologues. Let us be faithful visionaries of the world that can be and creative solution-builders for the common good.

Read more about how we define social innovation and access additional resources here. And stay tuned for more on the unique assets faith communities bring to the social innovation table.

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash