Steven Taylor-Smith

ella Regional Chair Steve Taylor-Smith tackles the issue of social innovation in our first in a series of blogs written by ella chairs…

During the recent socio-economic downturn experienced in the UK, and indeed the majority of the developed world, for a large chunk of the new millennium there has been a lot of pressure and indeed cajoling of charities and social enterprises to do more for less.  Some people actually feel that the ‘squeeze’ exerted by certain Commissioners is sufficient to force their organisation into financial unviability.

These are certainly the viewpoint presented to me by many Chief Executives and Senior Managers within the third sector whilst on my travels.  Whilst applying for contracts and often grant funds, organisations within our sector are asked to evidence their value for money, social impact, and innovative approaches.

There is a different school of thought however that innovation should not be merely regarded as Commissioners’ attempt to squeeze the sector to the point of financial uncertainty, but to nurture or engender an approach that better tackles the more entrenched issues of society which may have occurred as a result of less public funds being available.

Through the application of social innovation there is the possibility to offer new solutions that simultaneously improve capabilities, use of resources, and working and social relationships whilst meeting an identified social need in such a way that is more effective than the current approach.  A strong example of this would be Big Issue who produce a magazine with topical content to be sold by local homeless people.  This undoubtedly was a novel approach to product distribution when it was launched, and in turn Big Issue generates high levels of social return in the process.  Using this example it could be argued that nobody expected more for less and indeed by using such a business process money could have been saved in comparison with the ‘normal’ distribution channels available to the printed press market.

Another way of leveraging social innovation, and certainly one of growing interest, is the partnership between the social sector and the private sector; I personally believe that great things can be achieved with the further introduction of the second sector, also known as the public sector.  A glowing example of social innovation through the fusion of organisations from different cultures and different purposes is that of Grameen Danone Foods.  This entity came about through the meeting of minds of Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank (a community-focussed, micro finance entity) and Franck Riboud of Groupe Danone, the large private French dairy manufacturing company.  The organisation provides daily healthy nutrition to low income families and individuals that are nutritionally deprived across Bangladesh and in doing so they help reduce the effects of poverty via a community-based business model embracing the features of social franchising.

Some might say that the example of Grameen Danone Foods is merely a collaboration, not dissimilar to many ‘partnerships’ operational within our sector up and down the country. However, to be socially innovative collaboration alone is not enough.  There has been much research undertaken over the years in relation to social innovation and the general consensus is that certain features must exist for an idea or approach to be deemed innovative, as follows: –

 

  • The concept and / or rationale must be new or discernibly different to the best placed alternative
  • The service or product must meet a social need
  • The plan to deliver the service or product must be achievable and actually delivered i.e. it comes to fruition and is financially viable as well as ethically robust
  • The ‘deliverable’ must be effective in meeting its purpose
  • The result of delivering the service or product should improve society’s ability to develop and become empowered

 

It is clear that the two examples provided above – Big Issue and Grameen Danone Foods – meet all of the core criteria for social innovation and remain financially viable in doing so.  Although there are many organisations working in partnership around the world, many of which will not satisfy the definition of social innovation, many do meet the criteria but may lack growth funding or confidence to move forwards.  So does the word innovation mean more for less or is it a form of natural progression within the worlds of contract commissioning and socially conscious business delivery?

Your thoughts on this article would be gratefully received by Steve Taylor-Smith, Development Director (North) for ella forums CIC by way of email to stevets@ella-forums.org.

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