8 Steps to Embed a Culture of Social Innovation in your Organization


Trina Wamboldt, Urban Matters Executive Director

So you work in a great company and want to take it to the next level. Maybe your team is looking for more meaning in their work and are asking skill-testing questions about the organization’s overall purpose and impact within communities… or the world. Perhaps you are achieving your environmental sustainability targets and are looking for the next frontier in corporate social responsibility. If any of these scenarios ring true, maybe your organization is ready to embrace a culture of social innovation. How to get started? We recently chatted with Trina Wamboldt, executive Director of Urban Matters, about 8 steps that will get you well on your way.

1. Assess the Innovation Climate
The first thing you’ll need to do is assess how people at your company feel about social innovation. It’s not for everyone. It’s a long game that takes up-front investment, creativity and patience. Ideally your culture is one that isn’t afraid to make mistakes. Eventually you’ll want to embed a social purpose into your core mission, but if that seems a bit lofty, start small. Find the people in your organization who are budding social entrepreneurs and figure out what gets them fired up. Social innovation is fuelled by passionate people. Make sure leadership is on-board.

2. Take Stock
It’s helpful to be crystal clear about what you’re doing now. Where do you stand in terms of philanthropy (ie. donations and volunteering), minimizing harm (people, planet, profits), and adding “blended” value to communities (ie. where there is both a social and business benefit)? Where do you sit on the corporate social responsibility ‘spectrum’ today and what is your capacity to evolve? Asking yourself these questions will help you to hone on where you can do better and celebrate your successes.

3. Find Your Sweet Spot
Your organization has unique assets and your community has unique challenges. Where do the two intersect? Start with your strategic plan – what goals are you striving to achieve? Then review the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals to identify areas of potential social impact. Next map out your value chain (i.e. suppliers, customers, products/services, distribution networks, operations, decommission/disposition) to identify value added opportunities. This is a creative process – be prepared to think outside the box.

4. Become a Detective
Do your homework to confirm needs and desired outcomes. After you’ve identified some potential areas of social innovation take the time to truly understand the needs. Don’t waste valuable time and resources on social interventions that are unnecessary, unwanted or impractical. Investigate the local ecosystem and talk to your intended beneficiaries. Don’t make assumptions about what other people need or want. Work with beneficiaries and other stakeholders to identify desired outcomes and co-create measurable indicators.

5. Two (Or More!) Heads Are Better Than One
Develop strategic partnerships. Social innovation does not happen in isolation. Consider partnerships within your value chain, with like-minded people from other professions/disciplines, with citizen groups, with leaders in your own sector and with organizations from other sectors. You may even find yourself working alongside competitors. Competitive attitudes and egos derail social innovation efforts. Partnerships with objective third party organizations are very important to measure and verify social impact.

6. To The Drawing Board
Now it’s time to design and implement your social innovation strategy. The best way to achieve buy-in is to involve the people who will be expected to implement the strategy in the planning process. Set realistic goals and create a detailed action plan. Make sure you have a champion mandated to lead the initiative. Consider developing a team charter that spells out roles and responsibilities, communication and decision making protocols. Identify the resources required to achieve your strategy and ensure they are in place. (want help creating your social innovation strategy? We are available to lend our expertise: twamboldt@urbanmatters.ca)

7. The Proof is in the Pudding
How will you monitor progress and results? Logic models are commonly used to track inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes and impacts. It can be hard to measure social impacts without relevant data so begin with a plan for tracking impact indicators. Social Return on Investment (SROI) methodologies exist to help organizations measure the value of their efforts. This information can help to secure and maintain funding. Universities and other objective research partners can provide third party validation on impacts. Transparently reporting progress on your social innovation strategy builds trust with beneficiaries, funders, and other interested parties.

8. Evolve, Evolve, Evolve.
Continuously learn and adapt. Resilience and courage are important parts of social innovation. Spend your time and energy working with innovators and early adopters rather than trying to convert people who are ambivalent or against change. At a certain point you will reach a tipping point where the innovation will be adopted despite a small number of innovation resisters.

Good luck! We’d love to hear about what you’re up to and help you along the way. Reach out to us at twamboldt@urbanmatters.ca

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