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Program Officer Blog: Innovation for social change

The Sisters of Charity Foundation (SOCF) of Cleveland’s fellowship, known as The Innovation Mission, is a powerful opportunity for accomplished professionals to advance their innovative ideas to change the trajectory of poverty in Cleveland. The five professionals we selected for The Innovation Mission began the fellowship in November 2017. We are sharing their journey over the course of 18 months. In this installment, SOCF program officer Margaret Eigsti explains why innovation should be practiced across the social sector.

When I had a recent conversation with one of the fellows of The Innovation Mission, she reflected on the fact that the fellowship has provided her the opportunity to sit with a problem for a long period of time – longer than she would have otherwise – and spend that time researching the issue, looking at it from different angles, and thinking through several possible scenarios for the best solution.

This, she said, has been one of the most appreciated and one of the most challenging aspects of the fellowship, because, as she pointed out, the social sector doesn’t typically operate this way – there is never that kind of time available.

The Innovation Mission was designed this way. We wanted to provide time for talented professionals to learn and practice a disciplined innovation process that requires a deep understanding of a problem and an iterative process to develop an impactful solution. We teach that innovation is something that can be learned; it’s not something limited to a few individuals who are exceptionally creative or genius. Ultimately, it is a process that just needs to be practiced and then prioritized and embedded in the fabric of our organizations and program development.

So what if an innovation process to address social problems was the norm instead of the exception? How would our social solutions be different and maybe better?

Innovation is often associated with business, technology, medical and other industries, but it does not always fit so naturally in the social sector. However, at the heart of innovation is a holistic understanding of the problem—the people who will use what is designed and the surrounding conditions that impact their use of it. Innovation does not accept one framing of a problem, but instead recognizes the complexity of problems and people. It encourages including multiple perspectives.

Because the purpose of the social sector is to serve, empower, and ultimately improve the lives of people, it seems like, in fact, it is very logical to apply innovation to tackle complex social issues. There is a movement to incorporate innovation into the social sector that we should continue to foster; the stakes are too high not to. One in three Clevelanders and over fifty percent of Cleveland’s children live in poverty. Overcoming the complex challenges wrapped up in this reality are much more difficult and also more urgent than creating the next best phone. We could learn from the practices and disciplines that are used to advance so many other fields.

It’s hard for nonprofit organizations and their employees to prioritize processes of research, prototyping and iteration. Organizations are driven by grants with promised outputs, spending and deadlines. Priorities are shaped by the interests of funders and donors. Many of the people that organizations serve have daily needs that must come first. And there are always budget constraints. Unfortunately, organizations providing direct services don’t usually have the luxury of time and resources to test ideas, allow failure and iterate program designs.

The Innovation Mission is striving to provide this opportunity, because we recognize that it’s not always possible within the context of daily work. The fellowship is an idea the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland is testing to see if time and resources dedicated to innovation make a difference and can yield impactful approaches to address poverty. Halfway through the fellowship, I believe there’s power in the innovation process, and I am excited to continue to explore how the social sector might shift to encourage more innovation for social change.

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Margaret Eigsti, MSW, SOCF program officer

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