December 18, 2014

Message to the US: We're Not Alone on Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship

The world seems astonishingly aligned in embracing the power of social innovation and entrepreneurship.

I recently returned from a whirlwind European tour with two key parts. First, I (along with 500 social investors and practitioners from across the continent) attended the European Venture Philanthropy Association conference in Berlin. Then I joined a delegation of 18 senior government and social-sector leaders from six Asian countries (representing 40 percent of the world's population) that traveled on to Brussels and London for meetings with EU and UK government officials as well as other social sector luminaries.

Based on this saturated experience—constrained in time and space, but expansive in information conveyed, points of view shared and paradigms shifted—I have a message to bring back to US-based social change-makers: we're not alone! Indeed, the world seems astonishingly aligned in embracing the power of social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Although systems, government philosophies, cultures, and economies differ, it was striking to see how united so many of us are in the belief that big social problems can be solved by building and growing organizations that embody innovative approaches that really work. As much as we believe we in the US have to share with others, there's also much that we can learn from the inspiring things happening throughout Europe and Asia.

Here are my biggest takeaways:

Many European and Asian investors, practitioners, and government officials deeply believe that that their countries can do better in solving critical social challenges and that their own efforts can make a material difference.

Any American will recognize the can-do spirit that pervaded these sessions, the same high-octane fuel that has propelled our own social-purpose efforts over the years. But it's a relatively new phenomenon in many parts of the world, which many are relishing and celebrating. In fact, one German foundation official explicitly remarked about the welcome change this new energy represents from their tradition of relying on the state.

Creative and promising models are being developed and implemented, often with their own innovative revenue streams.

For example, a Belgian organization called Mobile School, is providing non-formal education to street children via 36 "mobile school carts" in 21 countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Mobile School is funded through its partnership with a sister organization called StreetwiZe, which packages the insights and skills of enterprising street kids into profit-making training programs for corporate marketers.

Another example is a UK organization called It's All About Me, which recruits and provides therapeutic training to adoptive parents for "harder to place" children. It's to be funded by the first provider-led social impact bond in the UK, developed by a consortium of 18 adoption agencies.

Governments are working to figure out how best to leverage the potential of private investors and innovators.

Of course, many efforts have been reasonably well-publicized in the US, such as the G8 Task Force on Social Impact Investing, which fostered "National Advisory Board" processes in member states, and the many UK-related developments, especially financing mechanisms such as social impact bonds and Big Society Capital. Not to be left out, the European Union is piloting the Social Impact Accelerator, a "fund of funds" to support impact investments created by the European Investment Fund.

But there are other, lesser-known examples. Very close to home for me are the efforts underway in Ireland and Hong Kong to launch social innovation funds, informed by the US government program but customized to meet local needs. Social Innovation Fund Ireland, for example, does not utilize intermediaries and intends to fund directly a wide range of social interventions. In contrast, the Hong Kong Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Fund utilizes intermediaries but is narrowly focused on poverty alleviation.

A little further from home, both literally and figuratively, is ThaiHealth, an independent agency created by the government of Thailand. Funded by a two percent "sin tax" surcharge on tobacco and alcohol sales that generates around $100 million annually, the agency aims to promote physical, spiritual, mental, and social well-being by supporting innovative programs in across multiple sectors. For example, drowning is the second largest cause of death for Thai children under age 15, and the great majority of the nation's children can't swim—so ThaiHealth has put together a partnership to promote survival swimming.

The sharing of knowledge and experience—especially across countries and continents—doesn't happen by itself.

Indeed, several organizations have been founded expressly to facilitate the exchange and dissemination of promising practices among funders and investors, social entrepreneurs and other social change-makers. Certainly, the European Venture Philanthropy Association and Asian Venture Philanthropy Network are stand-out examples of such knowledge sharing. Another notable example is the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), incubated by the Young Foundation in the UK, which works to connect and support networks of social innovators around the world. And the EU has gotten into the act with its Social Innovation Europe website.

As science-fiction devotees can attest, it can sometimes be comforting to feel alone. But for anyone committed to driving change, recognition of the burgeoning global interest in social innovation and entrepreneurship should be welcome news. For when all is said and done, it means that there are so many folks out there that we can commune with, learn from, and be inspired by.

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