What is innovation, anyway?

Embarcadero Gothic Rocket at Pier 14IF you design programs to address tough social or environmental issues, I have no doubt that you have applied for funding and faced the question: “How is your program innovative?” Around the same time, you might have asked yourself: What exactly is innovation?

Innovation in the social sector, like the for-profit sector, calls for:

  • Ingenuity
  • Visionary leadership
  • Flexibility
  • Networking and collaboration
  • Risk-taking
  • Problem-solving
  • Strong storytelling
  • Powerful ideas that can attract backing (champions, resources, talent)

The definition could be shaped by whether you work on a local scale or a global one, the size of your organization and the type of problem you are solving. Innovation does not necessarily mean new. In some cases, nonprofits have emerged or transformed to reinvent broken revenue models or respond to changing times.


Perspectives on Innovation


How do journalists, philanthropists, nonprofits and entrepreneurs define innovation?

  • Innovation from the Bottom Up. In the New York Times Dot Earth Blog, author Andrew C. Revkin writes about his participation in the inaugural Rockefeller Innovation Forum last month. He describes innovations as technological (such as the design of cheap water filters), financial (such as microfinance) or conceptual (problem solving focused on root causes and not symptoms).
  • What is Innovation in Health and Well-Being? Ashoka Changemakers calls an innovative health project one that “uses new strategies beyond those used by traditional health systems.” In this article they discuss preliminary trends around innovation in health and well-being and take a closer look with some real-life examples from the field.
  • Risk Taking and Visionary Thinking. In disheartening news, yesterday Steve Jobs announced that he was stepping down as Apple’s CEO. In Jobs case, innovation has been synonymous with risk taking and visionary thinking. As this New York Times article reports, he redefined the music, cellphone and entertainment businesses with his products going on a gut instinct about what he thought people would want.
  • Building networks. Andrew Hargadon, a professor of entrepreneurship and a Kauffman Foundation senior fellow, blogs on What is Innovation. In his article he writes: “Shifting the central activity of innovation from ‘having an idea’ to seeing and building the networks shifts the attention from thinking to the actions required to build the network that will realize the idea. In other words, innovation has two sides: creativity and entrepreneurship.”
  • Public, private and nonprofit sectors converge. The Social Innovation Fund calls its itself “innovative” for representing a “new way of doing business” for the federal government. In July of this year, the San Francisco Business Times featured the Bay Area philanthropic organization REDF as a “new model” of philanthropy after they received a second $3 million grant from the $50 million Social Innovation Fund. REDF in turns matches these funds to support subgrantees (community-based nonprofits) building social enterprises to employ the hardest-to-serve populations.

Social Innovation Resources from Social Edge:

A Sense of Urgency

President Bill Clinton, our 42nd President and founder of the William J. Clinton Foundation received a Lifetime Achievement Award for innovation in philanthropy at The Rockefeller Foundation’s inaugural Innovation Forum. As President Clinton accepted the award, he said:

“innovation can make the difference” in a world that, as it stands, is “too unequal, too unstable and totally unsustainable.”