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How do you know when you’ve struck social innovation?

This was the topic of a recent panel event hosted by Exchange PHL, a contingent of organizations in Greater Philadelphia united by their intent to develop opportunities for collaboration, share promising ideas for social change, and build new networks. Luke Butler, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Nick Torres, co-founder of the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal shared insights about social innovation evaluation to about 20 attendees.

We noted several high-level thoughts from the panel discussion that can guide ideas, define effectiveness, and help nonprofit initiatives evolve and grow in innovative ways:

  • Great ideas are important to successful innovations, but alone they’re not enough. To succeed, nonprofits must carefully measure the social impact their initiatives generate. Net dollars are traditionally the metric of success in the for-profit world. Alternatively, nonprofits have a tougher challenge because the metrics indicating tangible success aren’t always as clear. Nonprofit leaders should have an intimate understanding of the specific measurements that define success, especially when it comes to social innovation in their respective focus areas.
  • Knowing whether social-good initiatives are truly innovative or just happen to work can be difficult. Springboard Collaborative, led by Alejandro Gac-Artigas, was mentioned as a prime example of true social innovation that can serve as a success model for other nonprofits. In the case of Springboard, their innovation was recognizing that parental involvement was just as crucial to preventing “summer-slide” among young students as ensuring that kids read during the summer months. Previously, the common sentiment was that students with low reading scores had parents who couldn’t or didn’t want to be involved in the process of improving their child’s reading ability. However, through targeted parent outreach and involvement, Alejandro and his team have been able to raise the reading scores of students well above the national average.
  • A strong set of metrics is the one of the leading factors in Springboard Collaborative and other nonprofit innovators’ success.  While some organizations use internal metrics that have little meaning to people outside the organization, it has proven to be more effective for Springboard to use external metrics as a benchmark for success.  Using this as a model, nonprofit innovations that surpass metrics that are established and recognized within a specific sector can gain more credibility and more recognition for its success.

As technology evolves and best practices become more open-sourced, innovations will continue to propel the social sector forward. Nonprofits can accelerate that process by clarifying their metrics, revamping their evaluation process, and embracing a willingness to think outside the box when attempting to solve social challenges.

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