What is social innovation?

A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.
— From "Rediscovering Social Innovation," James A. Phills, Jr., Kriss Deiglmeir, & Dale T. Miller, in Stanford Social Innovation Review

Social innovation is not a silver bullet or a magic formula. It is simply a way to approach the challenges we face as a society. At innoFaith, we think of social innovation in terms of a framework for addressing social problems, a posture that enables change, and some strategic attributes that drive impact. Read more below and access some resources that may be helpful.

Social innovation is a FRAMEWORK for tackling social problems.

  • Consider problems systemically. We aspire to understand problems in a holistic way and to transform them, not just react to them.

  • Develop new strategies. We aspire to look at problems from different perspectives to open up new approaches with potential for impact.

  • Create sustainable social value. We aspire to do more than critique the status quo or entrench band-aid solutions, but rather create long-term value for society as a whole.

Social innovation is a POSTURE that enables transformative change.

  • Openness (a.k.a. No Ideology). We believe in holding our values firmly but our ideologies lightly. Ideologies, when too tightly held, can prevent us from understanding the underlying causes of a problem and from seeing ways that we could change course. Opportunity is everywhere if we are open to it.

  • Collaboration (a.k.a No Walls). Social problems today are too complex for any one institution or sector to tackle on its own. Transforming such problems happens through collaboration, often unlikely collaboration.

  • Empathy. It is only through seeking to understand all perspectives, whether we agree with them or not, that we can begin to see where and why people, institutions, and systems may be producing harmful or unjust outcomes.

  • Informed and Iterative Action. Acting on good intentions alone often leads to problematic results. We also cannot wait for perfect information. The challenges we face are urgent. Social innovation requires taking informed and considered risks, testing ideas, learning, and iterating.

Social innovation can take many forms, but the approach will usually involve many of the following strategic ATTRIBUTES

  • Empowers individuals and communities

  • Grows social capital

  • Builds bridges, creates unlikely allies

  • Re-purposes existing resources

  • Realigns incentives

  • Redefines roles that people or institutions play, or the relationships between them

  • Leverages new technologies (but never is only a technological solution)

  • Roots itself in data (but is not directed by data alone)

  • Iterates based on new information

The world needs more social innovation—and so all who aspire to solve the world’s most vexing problems—entrepreneurs, leaders, managers, activists, and change agents—regardless of whether they come from the world of business, government, or nonprofits, must shed old patterns of isolation, paternalism, and antagonism and strive to understand, embrace, and leverage cross-sector dynamics to find new ways of creating social value.
— Phills, Deiglmeir, & Miller

social innovation resources

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reading list

Let's face it, social innovation is about getting out and doing. But then, every good innovator also does their research. If you're interested in reading more about social innovation, here's a list of articles and books we recommend.

+Acumen Courses

Acumen offers a variety of useful courses, many of them free. Learn a range of skills helpful to social innovation, including human-centered design, social impact analysis, and systems practice.

How to change the world

A curated set of resources to help you create deep and lasting change from Ashoka.

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Ashoka's changemaker toolkit

Social innovation requires us all to think and act as changemakers. And we can start small. Unleash the changemaker inside you with this toolkit from Ashoka.

Ashoka’s changemaking.net

Learn about systems change in this 3-part story-based learning journey with animated videos and worksheets. Move from direct service to developing solutions at the root of the problem.


amani social innovation framework

Check out this infographic from the Amani Institute: 8 Steps to Creating a New Idea. 

Ideo.org field guide to human-centered design

Learn the inspiration-ideation-implementation methodology of human-centered design to create and test new solutions with this field guide and other resources from IDEO.org.