Comb through the statistics on poverty, education, and other social indicators in America and you won’t find yourself wanting for sobering information. Nearly 50 million Americans are living in poverty. Low-income kids are stuck in low-performing schools. Unemployment rates among minorities, particularly young people, remain stubbornly high. Approximately 70% of incarcerated people are re-arrested within a few years of their release.
Our sluggish economy and endlessly deadlocked political system aren’t helping to brighten this picture, but a new generation of fearless social entrepreneurs and community leaders give us reason to feel optimistic against all odds. Working with counterparts in philanthropy, business, and the public sector, they are sowing seeds of progress.
The past few decades have taught us that even the most promising social innovations face slim odds of breaking through. What’s notable today is that we are now seeing pathways from small-scale progress exemplified to full-scale impact with the potential to meet the huge needs that still exist among our fellow citizens. I believe seven key drivers can take us there:
The philanthropic sector has long focused on finding and scaling the most effective solutions, but the prevailing wisdom has been that growing the organizational footprint was the key to success. Organizations are now increasingly trying to scale impact with different approaches, including partnerships that allow for their interventions to be spread through powerful existing networks and distributions channels. Cases in point: Health Leads and Single Stop USA, which have both created groundbreaking distribution partnerships for their interventions with health systems and community colleges, respectively.
Big data, small data, push data, pull data: we are at the beginning of a revolution where the role of data moves beyond proving effectiveness or even providing retrospective insight to improve programs. Innovative uses of data itself are becoming a strategy for serving constituents and improving operating models to provide real-time information on impact. For example, the Family Independence Initiative, which has built a compact with recipients to collect data and provide it to the participating families themselves, who use that data to identify new possibilities, set their own goals, and track and share their own progress out of poverty.
Some of the most promising social enterprises are putting power in the hands of constituents in new ways. LIFT, which has built a 100,000-strong national network of change agents, is led by recipients themselves.
The social sector is only at the beginning of understanding how technology can strengthen social impact, but things may be changing. Examples include the National Conference on Citizenship, which is building a tech platform to scale national service by integrating currently far-flung or nonexistent functions to connect service opportunities and volunteers for certification, placement, learning, and more. Y Combinator, a tech incubator that is supporting a new crop of tech platform-based social enterprises such as CareMessage and Noora Health, both of which connect patients to health care in accessible and customizable ways.
Social innovators have traditionally worked on the supply side of the equation, relying on models that seek to show a better way of solving a problem. Now, we are seeing efforts that target key sectors and partners to create energy on the demand side. This encourages the market to nurture and catalyze solutions that work, to create new pathways to social innovation financing, and to grow previously untapped opportunities that drive social impact. Year Up is partnering with Fortune 500 companies to create employment pipelines for low-income youth through high-performing approaches to technology training and job placement.
Deliberate efforts that bring together all the actors in an ecosystem—policymakers, entrepreneurs, researchers, philanthropists, and others—are beginning to show big potential. Participants learn from one another, align strategies, deploy resources collaboratively, and ultimately begin modeling more effective ways of interacting to address problems. New Profit’s own work to build a community of funders and grantees has focused on connecting innovations that address learning differences and social-emotional learning with mainstream education reform efforts.
Leaders at the federal, state and local levels are insisting on more results-oriented approaches that both save resources and increase impact. While this pressure can squelch innovation, if it is channeled effectively, it can also lead to policies that create space for finding new and better ways of solving our problems. The pay-for-success approach to social finance, which uses public incentives to mobilize private sector funding for piloting high-impact social programs, is increasingly piloted at federal, state and local levels. Right now, the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is moving through Congress (amazingly enough) and the legislation could direct unprecedented resources to outcome-oriented approaches like pay-for-success, referred to as pay-for-performance in the bill.
None of these solutions alone is a panacea, but the momentum behind them is growing larger, and the ties binding all these innovative actors stronger. Optimism and commitment will be the forces that will push them over the top and bring hope to millions of people who are still struggling.