Dimensions of Nonprofit Social Innovation

At the cellular level, nonprofit innovation is about change. Nonprofit innovation is about finding efficiency, converting knowledge and ideas into better ways of doing business, improving programs and services, and scaling big ideas. There is not a single organization in existence today that isn’t searching for innovation as a way to improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness.

Linking compelling social needs to the ideas of innovation creates the construct of of social innovation. Social innovation is the “holy grail” of nonprofit, philanthropic or government in search of finding new ways of creating community level solutions for social needs. As a contemporary overused buzzword, social innovation writers, consultants and scholars emphasize social innovation as the process of inventing or creating novel approaches to social change. Unfortunately, we too often hear words such as “catalytic” or “disruptive” to magnify the scale of the implied change. This “shiny new object” focus only on disruptive or catalytic social innovation distorts social innovation because it emphasizes only one point on a four point matrix.

In this blog, I want try and bring dimensions to social innovation to remove it from the abstract buzzword category. In this way, I hope to offer the starting point for strategic conversations within and across organizations about innovation.

It is not a new thought to think on innovation across two continuum (see reference 1). So if catalytic or disruptive innovation is at one end of a change continuum then the other end of the spectrum is process innovation that day-to-day work of continuous improvement for organizations. Positioning social innovation as adaptive or disruptive/catalytic is a very useful way of anchoring the basic dimensions of the social innovation concept.

Process innovation and disruptive/catalytic innovation need to be considered against the continuum of leverage or scale. For example, the Obama administration has developed a new partnership between government and philanthropy heralded under the banner of the Social Innovation Fund. The purpose is described as targeting millions of dollars in public-private funds to expand effective solutions across economic opportunity, healthy futures and, youth development and school support. The approach is to “create a catalog of proven approaches that can be replicated in communities across the country.” (see reference 2) The Social Innovation Fund clearly provides leverage by aggregating philanthropic and government dollars and uses that leverage to scale programs. However, given that the Social Innovation Fund requires grants to be based on existing programs and services that meet an “evidence-base” criteria, some have argued that true innovation is missing from the initiative. For example, one can read in various opinion blogs, statements such as this one:

“The central mission dissonance of the Social Innovation Fund has always been the question of what its real objective was. Was it meant to be a fund that really pushes an experimental agenda and deploys capital in favor of new approaches to social change that have both high risk and high reward? Or was it alternately a chance for the government to get a hand in on organizations whose models started as innovative and who were reaching an inflection point where new resources and government support could help them achieve the scale their proven model demanded.” (see reference 3)

So considering the larger context of social innovation, we can see that the two dimensions of the construct include the dimension of continuous verses discontinuous innovation and the second dimension of leverage and scale. Placing the two dimensions across each other, the concept of social innovation can be represented as four typologies as illustrated in the figure one.
Nonprofit InnovationThe patterns and practice describing innovation that emerge when we consider the degree of change coupled with the degrees of leverage and scale can be described as follows:

Process Innovation: When the degrees of change are low (as in consistent and continuous) and the resources available for leverage and scale are inadequate, social innovation is largely consists of process improvements. This category of change is not simply trying “doing more with less,” but it is the sum total of the intentional, systematic, and strategic efforts of an agency to improve its processes largely within its existing structure, programs, and services.

Growth Innovation: When an organization is focused on innovating within its existing structure, programs, and services, in the context of collaborative relationships or increased financial resources (leverage and scale), the innovation results in program growth. Typically this growth is driven by intentional program expansion, program replication, or program dissemination. It is in this quadrant that innovation might be opening branch operations in a new geography, training others in an affiliate or dissemination model, or expanding service hours. Innovation is typically about about scaling systems to serve more people, creating value chain efficiencies, or creating rigorous evidence-base that encourages the adoption of program or service models by others.

Adaptive Innovation: Going back to an operating environment of constraints (in relationship to leverage and scale), adaptive innovators are those willing to move ahead of or beyond its existing structure, programs, and services to achieve a higher degree of social impact. Innovators in this might move out of preventive or secondary program and services and begin devoting limited resources to working upstream on policy or advocacy. In this quadrant, innovators do not simply ask “how can we improve what we are doing” but rather ask, “could we be more effective if we moved outside of our existing strategies, programs and services?

Catalytic Innovation: The final quadrant of innovation is where large-scale change is sought and is supported with ample leverage and scale. It is not seeks to grow and scale an idea but also seeks to amplify innovation by considering discontinuous ideas in addition to continuous ones. As suggested previously, Disruptive innovation is pursed as if it were the holy grail of social sector. Indeed, catalytic change can create powerful change (see reference 4) but giving disruptive innovation an unequal weight compared to the other three quadrants can skew with meaning of social innovation and actually be a disservice to the field. Disruptive innovation is the current concept with cachet and gravitas relative to the “mundane” work of systematic program improvement and hence, there is the potential that solid process, adaptive, or growth strategies might be overlooked.

The point to be underscored is this. We need to create a shared understanding of social innovation as a critical foundation for building a local perspective for social innovation. Common language is essential to creating a local social innovation approach to compelling social needs. In this overview I have proposed a more robust seed bed for considering approaches to innovation. By broadening the dimensions of social innovation, we can now turn our attention to creating a social innovation framework. It is not about catalytic innovation or adaptive innovation as if it were either/or. Rather social innovation is about both/and. The community needs the investments and strategic thinking to create catalytic innovation that disrupts business as usual. The community also needs the skills and tools to engage in process, adaptive, and growth innovation.

Thinking critically about when to focus on innovation from a process, adaptive, growth and disruptive perspective and how to combine such innovations will result in a stronger social-citizen sector addressing compelling community needs. It is my perspective that only with a broader view of innovation can nonprofits, philanthropy, and government organizations can engage individually and collectively in more thoughtful and strategic conversations about social innovation.

~ Mark


1. For a useful policy overview see:  Pay for Success Learning Hub

2. Source: Corporation for National and Community Service – Social Innovation Fund

3. Source: Social Innovation: Fund Pioneering an Evidence-based Model

4. See as an excellent example: Catalytic Philanthropy


Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.