Non Profit Innovation

Who pays the costs for innovation?

I recently sat through a painful session on non-profit innovation, and how failure can be a marker of innovation.  Now I’m not opposed to innovation, mind you, I’m just amazed at the way the practice has been glorified at the expense of accountability.

Three examples of failure that spurred innovation were presented:

  • First, Hull House in Chicago. The legendary social services agency went out of business in June of 2012, after 122 years of providing social service to Chicago’s poor.  This massive failure left tens of thousands of clients stranded without access to vital services.  The agency had become overly dependent on government funding, and as that shrunk, the business model was no longer viable.  The “lesson” from this failure was that non-profits needed to diversify their funding streams.
  • Second was an interesting start-up, Benevolent.  They have experimented with crowd sourcing philanthropy, creating a platform for individual client to bring their needs to the funding community.  The instructive failure was two individuals who needed massive dental reconstruction in order to be competitive in the job market. The learning was that the price point was too high for crowd sourcing and that the particular need wasn’t compelling to donors.
  • Third was a full blown cluster-f**k of first world innovation failing massively in the developing world.  The Case Foundation, with much fan fare, bankrolled something called “PlayPumps” to bring reliable water to small communities in Africa.  As the Case Foundation program officer detailed, the pumps replaced functioning systems with a new system that was expensive to install, difficult to maintain, and too often placed in communities where there weren’t enough children to make it viable.  Case admitted the failure in a courageous blog post.  More problematically, they ascribe this failure to being innovative, where it seems to me a striking failure in due diligence, and a failure to partner with the folks on the ground, both the existing infrastructure of aid workers, and the communities themselves.

All of these examples of learning through failure have one common thread – the people impacted were poor people of color.  To her credit, Megan Kashner of Benevolent made this point throughout the presentation, but she seemed to be a lone voice.

Innovation is all the rage – but not for communities like Scarsdale, Bethesda and Brentwood.  Innovation is practiced in Anacostia, and Harlem and Compton.  Why might that be?

If social innovation had to adhere to the rules of medical testing, there would be an IRB and informed consent required before anyone conducted these experiments.

Is it time for that in the social sector?


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