May 5, 2020

Beyond Survival: Five Keys to Unlock Social Innovation Amid the COVID-19 Crisis

Five concrete steps nonprofits can take immediately during the coronavirus outbreak to build up the new muscles that will unleash their latent capacity to innovate.

By: Ann Mei Chang

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives, with dramatic implications for the social sector. Just as needs across our communities multiply with the strain of new emotional, financial, and healthcare challenges, nonprofits themselves are reeling from both operational constraints and imperiled funding streams. Understandably, many have been focused on their very survival.

Now, more than a month into the crisis, organizations are starting to look forward to how they can adapt their crucial work amid both the current shutdown and what promises to be a prolonged period of tumult. Most experts believe that it will likely take at least a year or two for a vaccine to become widely available. All the while, state-by-state restrictions will likely continue to evolve, while the effects on the social fabric and economy are only beginning to be appreciated. In this era of extreme uncertainty, a new core competency will become the key success factor—agility.

Traditionally, the social sector has stepped in to fill the gaps and failures of both the private and public sectors. And the need for services has only become greater, in light of the disproportionate impact of this disease on already disadvantaged communities. In this role as provider of last resort, taking risks or acting in the absence of extensive planning can be perceived as irresponsible. Yet, this moment calls for bold action, and not innovating in fact poses greater risk. An ever-changing environment requires constant reinvention. Static strategies and static programs must become dynamic. What’s more, while this external shock may be the forcing function today, many existing interventions are arguably in need of a refresh as well.

In the immediate response to the COVID-19 crisis, many organizations have found ways to stay connected and provide some services through videoconferencing and other online tools. This is an important stopgap, but we can’t stop there. Simply migrating from offline to online isn’t exactly “innovation.” While it may be an alternative, is it an alternative that works well to address the original need? A virtual environment comes with its own plusses and minuses, which must be appropriately harnessed. Some intangible benefits of informal personal interactions may be lost, but a frictionless online experience holds the potential to open new pathways.

Luckily there are concrete steps nonprofits can take immediately to build up the new muscles that will unleash their latent capacity to innovate. To quote Thomas Edison, “Genius is one-percent inspiration and 99-percent perspiration.” While innovation may seem to be all fun and games, it is in fact rooted in a rigorous methodology for experimentation. The good news is that no specialized expertise is necessary, just a fresh approach. Here are five keys to kickstart that reorientation:

1. Refocus on the problem

Faced with a program that can no longer be delivered in person, the most obvious response is to translate an existing intervention into a virtual format. But, social distancing is only one of many factors to consider, and new needs continue to emerge from the loss of livelihoods, closure of schools, and psychosocial effects of isolation. Online interactions also come with their own limitations as well as new opportunities. Rather than starting with the current solution, it’s important to reorient to the original problem being solved and how it can be best addressed under the current conditions and with new platforms.

Is there an ongoing problem no longer being addressed given stay-at-home restrictions (e.g. youth gang involvement, previously mitigated by recreational activities)? Are there new problems that have surfaced among existing beneficiaries (e.g. new financial or emotional strain that makes it more challenging to adopt healthier habits)? Are new populations experiencing related problems that your organization is well suited to address (e.g. sudden unemployment leading to more food insecure families who are seeking assistance from food banks)? Focusing on the problem, and not just your programs, will ensure the most important needs are met.

2. Identify risks

There are lots of good ideas. Problem is they don’t always work, at least not at first. That’s okay. Trying something new by definition requires taking some risk; thus it’s impossible to avoid failure altogether. But, what is possible is to fail small to avoid failing big. We can do this by identifying (and validating) the things that might go wrong from the start. One wonderful aspect of working in the social sector is the culture of support and encouragement. But, the corresponding downside is a tendency for groupthink. So, it’s important to create the space for healthy debate and to play the devil’s advocate by asking tough questions of ourselves and each other.

To start with, if your target audience doesn’t actively participate, you’re unlikely to get very far. Is your intervention compelling enough such that they’ll turn off the TV or put down that video game? Just because something may be “good for you” doesn’t mean we prioritize it, as anyone who procrastinates about going to the gym or falls off a diet well knows. Is a modified delivery model equally effective at producing the desired behavior change, learning, or other improvement? Could it be even better? Will the model reach everyone equitably, including communities of color? For an online service, do participants even have reliable internet access?

3. Don’t plan, do

Recently, many online pilots and initiatives that were planned and debated for years have suddenly been thrust into the light of day. The crisis has forced organizations to move beyond their comfort zones. This is an important new capability, because extensive planning doesn’t work in an uncertain and changing environment or with complex, intractable problems. Instead, small, intentional experiments designed to validate or invalidate potential risks under real world conditions allow us to learn what works and adapt more quickly. The key is to find ways to observe the real world response to an intervention rather than relying on surveys involving hypothetical choices. What people think they’ll do often bears little resemblance to their actual behavior.

Ask, what is the biggest risk and is there a way to learn something more about it tomorrow? An initial test could be as simple as circulating invitations to an event and measuring response rates to gauge interest before investing in extensive planning. During a virtual session, are participants paying attention? Engaging? Afterwards, do they come back? Refer friends and family? Do they take actions or exhibit early signs of behavior change that indicate the desired effects are taking place?

4. Keep iterating

If an experiment succeeds, don’t stop there. Remember that 99-percent perspiration? Meaningful innovation rarely results from a single attempt. Rather, anticipate an ongoing process of rapid iteration and improvement. Edison is said to have made over a thousand attempts, learning a bit more with every failure, before successfully inventing the lightbulb. The faster the feedback loop, the faster the learning, the faster the improvement—the greater the likelihood for success.

Don’t stop at producing a virtual analog to your previous in-person activities. This is a whole new medium to explore. Do online sessions work better with fewer people? More people? Longer? Shorter? More frequently? Less frequently? Could other online channels (such as a chat group) provide supplemental support between live meetings? Do people relax and share more while involved in an activity (such as playing a game or exploring a virtual world such as the popular Animal Crossing) rather than looking self-consciously at a screen of people staring back?

5. Build agility

Most nonprofits become deeply identified with the intervention or program that they have carefully crafted over many years. Yet, in these uncertain times, even the most perfectly refined solution will likely stumble as both constraints and problems continue to shift. Having an organization that is able to nimbly adapt to unexpected twists and turns will be more crucial than ever. This comes from being clear on the what, while allowing freedom on the how.

Start with a clear and tangible goal for measuring success that is understood by everyone—a quantifiable vision. Next, empower staff at all levels to, based on their scope of knowledge and expertise, make changes and test alternatives to better achieve that goal. Build a culture that encourages and rewards tough questions, risk-taking, and constructive failure. Finally, ensure that diverse perspectives from beneficiaries, stakeholders, and domain experts are deeply integrated at every stage. To learn more about building an innovative organization, see An Operating Model to Make Social Innovation Stick.

This challenging time is stretching us to our limits, both as individuals and as organizations. The world as we knew it is fading into the past, and the world as it will be is yet to be revealed. Now more than ever, we will need social innovation to help us meet the moment.

Ann Mei Chang is the author of Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good (Wiley, October 2018) and currently a Fellow at The Bridgespan Group. Previously, she served as the chief innovation officer at both USAID (US Agency for International Development) and Mercy Corps. Prior to her pivot to social good, Chang was a Silicon Valley executive with more than 20 years' experience that included Google, Apple, Intuit, and several startups.