Venture Philanthropy Partners: Investing in Social Change.


The Other Side of Innovation

February 2012

Carol Thompson ColeIt's been over 18 months since VPP became an inaugural member of the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), and almost a year since we launched our SIF initiative, youthCONNECT, a collaborative network of six nonprofits that are working together to improve the lives of disconnected youth in the National Capital Region. We thought long and hard about applying to this new program, but after a year of results, I am glad we did. Our youthCONNECT network partners have performed exceptionally in all areas, both in terms of the number of youth served and by achieving significant organizational milestones.

The SIF is a new way of doing business for the philanthropic sector. Public and private funds are mobilized to grow promising, innovative community-based solutions that have evidence of compelling impact. The SIF provides grants to intermediaries like VPP, who then invest in organizations that can drive solutions to pressing social problems. With each re-granting, the money must be matched, resulting in a 3:1 leverage of the federal dollars. When the award winners were released in July of 2010, there was some criticism of the selections, as we were all generally organizations with proven results that had been operating for several years. Several people saw it as counterintuitive to include "proven" solutions in a fund encouraging "innovation."

The press release announcing the SIF grantees was titled "Inaugural Social Innovation Fund Grants Awarded to Experienced Innovators." Nathaniel Whittemore, writing for, highlighted what he saw as an inherent tension in this phrase, calling out the paradox of aligning experience within a frame of innovation.

After a year of results from our SIF initiative, I would like to add to this discussion. It is a discussion not limited to the SIF, but a discussion that has been going on for as long as I have been involved in the sector.

I do not see tension between "innovation" and "what works." This specious connection comes from a misunderstanding about what innovation means for the social sector, as well as the different ways innovation can happen in any sector. We typically think of innovation as it relates to the business world—innovation led to the light bulb, the assembly line, and it now brings us smaller and smaller consumer electronics, seemingly every month. But that is only one side of innovation.

In a definitive article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, James A. Phills Jr., Kriss Deiglmeier, and Dale T. Miller answer the question, "What is social innovation?" with this definition:

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.

They come to this definition by analyzing the main components of the words "social" and "innovation." Regarding "innovation," they say that innovation occurs through two forms, either through outcomes or through processes. The iPhone in your pocket is the result of an outcome through innovation, but the Social Innovation Fund and VPP's youthCONNECT network represent an innovation in process and model.

Innovative programmatic or service-delivery outcomes obviously exist in the social sector. New ideas to better serve those who need support are popping up all the time, and many have written about the programmatic innovations happening at nonprofits around the country. Many of the SIF subgrantees are some of those nonprofits who developed and tested these innovative ideas. Unfortunately, when these ideas are proven, they are considered "old" and no longer "innovative." Some look at the organizations the SIF supports, including our subgrantees, and see large nonprofits with strong track records. Because of this, they dismiss the innovation potential. By making that jump, they miss the new model we are all working with, which has a high potential for real, sustainable impact, as well as adaptation or replication.

I have had the pleasure of hearing Paul Carttar, the Director of the Social Innovation Fund, speak several times. (You can watch one of those speeches on our YouTube page here.) His message always comes back to one main point: If the SIF model of public-private collaboration is adopted by others as a way to leverage resources and create change, this experiment will have succeeded. For those focused on outcomes and outputs of social programs, this standard might seem disheartening and misguided. But after a year of working with our youthCONNECT partners, and a year and a half of working closely with Paul and his team, I understand what he means.

The six organizations in youthCONNECT have served almost 7,000 youth in this first year, and each has made significant strides in other areas: College Summit trained 200 students to implement their curriculum; 86% of KIPP DC's class of 2011 have graduated from high school; Latin American Youth Center's Promotores Pathway served 193 youth with a 96% retention rate; Metro TeenAIDS is operating in 14 new schools in DC; 98% of the graduates from Urban Alliance's 2010-2011 High School Internship program enrolled in college; and Year Up NCR hired its first Health Navigator to provide additional counseling and healthcare services to its students. We at VPP, as well as the match funders in this initiative, are thrilled with these results. But I really get goosebumps when I see what they are accomplishing not as individual service providers, but as a unified network working to improve the lives of youth in this region in every way they can.

One benefit is that the network partners are already providing complementary services. Metro TeenAIDS is working with KIPP DC to bring their health education program to its schools and Urban Alliance has placed its interns into KIPP DC schools. Year Up has referred some youth to the Latin American Youth Center, and LAYC's Promotores Pathway is also an option for any network partner's youth who are facing challenges that require the most intensive services and supports. College Summit knows its students have a place at Urban Alliance to improve their chances of getting into college, or a place at Year Up if they are not ready for higher education. We expect this collaborative work to continue and be expanded, particularly after the groups complete a formal and rigorous planning process that has recently been initiated.

A large part of the youthCONNECT network and the SIF in general is focused on evaluation. The network partners, along with our evaluation partner Child Trends, are working on developing a common outcomes framework to track individual progress as well as progress as a network. When we finalize this framework, the implications for the field will stretch much farther than our work in the National Capital Region, and our work specifically on youth development.

The innovation in the youthCONNECT model can also be seen in the intangible interactions between the leaders of the different network partners. By supporting the infrastructure of this network, and bringing government, funders, and nonprofit providers to the table at the same time, VPP and the SIF have been able to catalyze discussions that will result in innovative ideas about what is possible to improve the systems in which we work.

One example is the Strive network, another SIF intermediary. Strive has been facilitating collaborative networks of high-performing nonprofits for several years now, and has begun to expand its framework into other regions. These affiliates focus on "cradle to career" initiatives that improve the civic infrastructure supporting children and youth in a particular region. The Road Map Project, an affiliate of Strive based in Seattle, has the ambitious goal to double the number of students in the south-Seattle area who are on track to graduate from college or earn a career credential by 2020. It is doing this by connecting organizations and implementing data systems to evaluate the work being done beyond individual programs.

Becoming a part of these networks helps organizations operate in new ways. Jessica Cunningham, Chief Academic Officer of KIPP DC, put it best:

We are all enabled to think bigger and broader than we ever have been able to…The conversations we have been able to have as a result of this network are so rich, that we are having conversations about changing things for everyone.

This is the innovation of the Social Innovation Fund: Taking experienced organizations with proven solutions, leveraging their resources, and putting them together to change things for all stakeholders, not just those directly served. This fits perfectly into Phills, Deiglmeier, and Miller's definition for social innovation above, as it is a model that is novel, more effective, more efficient, and more sustainable than existing solutions.

The potential impact of youthCONNECT goes far beyond the 20,000 the network is projected to serve over five years. As I have envisioned, and Jessica articulated so well, this is much bigger than that. It is about aligning our resources in the most effective ways we can to make the biggest impact on our region and on our country. We, and the other SIF intermediaries, are still experimenting with this approach, but as I look around the table during our youthCONNECT meetings, as well as our national SIF convenings, I cannot think of a better group of people to work on high impact social change.

New models for change are being introduced by organizations across the country. Living Cities, a collaboration of funders from around the country, has recently launched the Integration Initiative, which is using best practices to drive systems change and strengthen civic infrastructure. For the last ten years, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, another SIF grantee, has placed large amounts of capital into organizations with proven results and helped them scale in tremendous ways, as detailed in their recent report "A Good Thing Growing." [PDF]

Of course, deploying a new, creative service and using an innovative model are not mutually exclusive. Often, innovative services, once proven through rigorous evaluation and testing, turn into innovative models. Take Year Up, for example; its program of providing soft skills training and highly professional internships for disconnected youth has been successful in improving the lives of its participants. But it has also given Year Up the platform to attempt to change the overall structure of workforce development in our nation. Year Up has placed interns in federal agencies, and just this year, one of its alumni from the Boston site spoke at a White House summit on youth employment. [PDF] In the National Capital Region, Year Up developed a partnership with Northern Virginia Community College, which is now being used as a model for other community college/workforce development partnerships.

In my January 2011 column, I called for a "redefinition of scale" that expanded the notion of scale from just being about increasing numbers served to including the idea that an organization can scale influence—that is, it can scale in a way not focused on programs, but focused on affecting broader systems-change. I want to do the same here. We do not need to go as far as "redefining" innovation, but we need to recognize everything innovation encompasses. Programs can be both "proven" as well as "innovative."

Innovation is not about the means, but the ends. Innovation is about finding solutions that solve intractable problems. youthCONNECT and the SIF are both examples of an innovative model in action, and I know we will be able to improve the lives of low-income young people in our region through this work. I can feel the power of this new, innovative model when I sit in meetings with the youthCONNECT partners, and I know similar things are happening around the country. I encourage everyone to look past the simple definition of innovation and instead see innovation for all that it is. Innovation has the power not only to change the products we use and the services we offer, but also the systems we work in and our conceptions about how results are achieved. A fuller grasp and understanding of what makes something innovative can only help us do our work better, and ultimately better improve the lives of those we serve.

—Carol Thompson Cole