With government beset by perennial budget battles that make sufficient public funding for new social programs less likely, innovation to increase the reach and effectiveness of existing programs—whether public or private—becomes more essential than ever.
But “innovation” is often associated with technological innovation or sophisticated research and development beyond the reach of most of us mere mortals. So it’s worth decoding what innovation is really all about. In the dictionary, synonyms for innovation include “revolution” and “transformation.” But there is also the more modest “alteration.”
In the social sector, we’ve seen dramatic results from innovations representing modest alterations to existing programs. An example is school breakfast, which has a big impact on the course of a young student’s day.
From its creation in 1966 until recently, breakfast was served one way: in the school cafeteria, as you’d expect. This proved less than ideal as it is difficult for students to get to school early and there may be stigma attached to being the “poor” kids who come for free breakfast. An innovation that cost little but made a big difference to many was moving breakfast from the cafeteria to the first 10 minutes of first period; or alternatives such as “grab and go” carts from which children could grab a meal on the way in to school or between classes.
The result: increased participation, from an average of about 40 percent of eligible students, to nearly 100 percent in many schools. It required little or no spending, simply thinking different.
Another innovative idea being developed by the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project promises to expand national-service opportunities by creating a national certification system. Instead of limiting service opportunities to AmeriCorps agencies, any certified social-purpose organization could create service opportunities to help meet the demand, which currently outstrips supply by a factor of five.
Few social-service organizations have the luxury of a budget for innovation, and many may be intimidated by a process that sounds complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. An entire consulting industry exists to market and sell innovation processes.
But innovation doesn’t always require research, testing, design expertise, consultants, and so forth. Often the key ingredient is a commitment to put two words together: “What if?” In this sense, innovation has much more to do with trying something that hasn’t been tried before—mostly because it hasn’t been imagined—and refusing to let “what is” shape and constrain one’s thinking of “what could be.”
What if underserved schools could be staffed with students from the nation’s best colleges who joined a corps called Teach for America? What if instead of begging for charitable dollars to feed children in Africa, there were designer FEED bags sold in Target, Whole Foods, and other retail outlets with profits used for anti-hunger work? What if school breakfast and national service could be expanded by more accessible delivery systems?
At a time when so many of our most daunting social problems seem stubbornly resistant to traditional solutions, innovating fearlessly becomes more important than ever. It usually begins by asking “What if?”Return to Top