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Learning to Build Your Organization’s DNA

Organizational DNAInnovation. It’s a buzzword that has the potential to both inspire and exhaust us. The groundswell of attention and investment in social innovation through the White House Social Innovation Fund and the $650 million Department of Education Investing in Innovation Fund have unleashed an urgent call to action to innovate, pushing leaders in the sector to consider new possibilities and achieve superior results.

On the other hand, the focus on innovation feels at odds with the financial stress of operating a social change organization today. When it takes so much energy, commitment, and money to deliver on an organization’s mission through its current programs, giving thoughtful time to explore, consider, and test the “what ifs” feels like a luxury that most cannot afford.

This tension between an organization’s potential and its current capacity is precisely why innovation is a strategic imperative. Given the economic recession and the variety of challenges to organizational sustainability, innovation is a crucial component of any organization’s effort to remain relevant, attract necessary resources, and achieve lasting social impact.

For many, the bridge between innovation in concept and in practice is vague and nebulous. We turn to the recognized leaders like Teach for America, Harlem Children’s Zone, and Share Our Strength, eager—sometimes desperate—to answer the question, “How did they do it?”

Based on our experiences working with social innovators, we at Community Wealth Partners have found that innovation takes more than a good idea. It results from disciplined learning and execution. More specifically, we believe that human capital, learning, risk-taking, and accountability are critical in order to hardwire innovation within organizations.

Thanks to a unique partnership with the Louisiana State Office of Social Entrepreneurship, we have an opportunity to collectively observe and learn as social innovators effectively bridge gap between theory and action. Over the next two months, we will offer accounts from participants in the Social Innovators Institute—Acadiana Outreach Center, ADVANCE Innovative Education, and LifeShare Blood Centers—as they complete a rigorous and intense business planning process designed to advance their capacity to innovate.

Finally, we invite you to share your thoughts, experiences, and opinions about what it takes to innovate in the social sector in the comments below. What do you think is needed to not just innovate once, but to sustain innovation within our organizations? Within the sector as a whole?

Through the accounts of the participants in the Social Innovators Institute—and your stories and experiences—we hope to explore the following questions:

Human Capital: When it comes to innovation, you can’t go it alone. That’s a given. However, what is the role of staff, volunteers, and clients in fostering and nurturing innovation within an organization? How can you effectively motivate and involve various stakeholders in the effort?

Learning: Few of us manage to find the time to brainstorm and imagine new possibilities on a regular basis. In light of the urgent challenges of managing the day-to-day, how can curiosity be harnessed and learning be more systematic?

Risk-taking: In the resource-constrained realities of most social sector organizations, every decision, every investment seems critical to the health of the enterprise. The stakes are high. It is hard to let go of certainty to explore and realize possibilities. How do you become comfortable with risk-taking and confident in decision-making so innovation can flourish?

Accountability: Ultimately, the goal of innovation in the social sector is to achieve greater social impact. Thus, innovators must have clarity on what difference they want to make and what success looks like. How do you know if a particular innovation will get you there?

Do you agree with our hypotheses about human capital, learning, risk-taking, and accountability? Are there other management and cultural elements that need to be part of an organization’s innovation DNA? Please let us know what you think by sharing your comments.

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About Community Wealth Partners

At Community Wealth Partners we dream of a world in which all people thrive. To realize this dream, we help change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist. As a Share Our Strength organization, we bring the successful practices of one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger, anti-poverty organizations to hundreds of change agents nationwide.

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