Tell it to the trees?

Large established organisations generally struggle to innovate successfully as the bulk of their energy and efforts are spent keeping their large operational processes running efficiently. On the other hand social innovators and start ups while good at invention, are weaker at organisational development and management, and struggle to access the right markets, advice, networks and investment that they need to scale, sometimes creating a vicious cycle of launch and fail.

That’s the premise for ‘When Bees meet Trees – How large social sector organisations can help to scale social innovation‘ – a report published in November last year by social entrepreneur, Owen Jarvis and charity insider, Ruth Marvel as part of the Clore Social Fellows programme.

As well as outlining some of the key reasons (explained in the above quote) why social innovators and large, established social sector organisations should work together to ‘scale up’ innovation, it also explores some of the reasons why they aren’t currently doing so and makes some suggestions about what could be done about it.

The suggestion that a good way to take forward a new idea to tackle a particular social problem or help a group of people might be to form a partnership with an organisation that is already tackling that problem, or working with that group of people, might not seem like an especially controversial one. If that’s how it seems to you, you’re probably not someone who’s involved with the UK’s burgeoning social innovation industry.

While there are occasional honourable exceptions, generally the last thing you should risk admitting to if you’re looking for support from a disruptively innovative accelerator programme is any skill in the professional field you’re seeking to enter, experience of the market you’re seeking to operate in, or prior knowledge of the needs of or situations faced by the people you’re seeking to help.

Old charities that haven’t solved social problems are what social innovators are here to disrupt. All they’re interested in is keeping their jobs and getting government contracts to do the same boring stuff over and over again when that money could be being spent on more accelerators doing more exciting innovations.

The authors of ‘When Bees meet Trees’ carried out ‘interviews with 31 senior staff from social sector organisations, and discussions with 47 individuals in total’ and use the responses to address and make recommendations on three themes: culture, connection and collaboration.

The stereotypical views that large charities and social innovators (and people who ‘support’ social innovators) hold about each other are a problem. The report quotes one social innovation intermediary saying: “Most charities have been run on a shoe-string and are used to outmoded business thinking, to be blunt, I think the world’s moved on and become more networked, more connected and I think charities are on a bit of an out-dated 20th century business model.

while someone from a ‘Large Social Sector Organisation’ says: “We’re about filling the gaps and meeting the need of local communities. It’s about what works. We’re not about these ‘flash-bang-wallop’ new ideas“.

Beyond these stereotypes, though, the report suggests that the biggest cultural problem large social sector organisations have when considering developing innovative ideas and projects is risk. One explains:

We’re not great at change, internally we tend to see change as risky, worry about what the regulator will think, what will tenants think, perception is that most external ideas might fail.

while another says: “… our main donors are Governments who don’t want to take risks with taxpayers’ money, they want safe bets.

According to the authors, large social sector organisations are reactive where social innovators are pro-active and while this may, particularly in the current climate, include being reactive to public sector demands for ‘new solutions’, the danger is that the priority becomes keeping the organisation going rather than responding to need.

For the authors, it’s not that barriers to partnership don’t exist – or that stereotypes are wholly inaccurate – but that currently, there are enough opportunities for open-minded charity people and social innovators who aren’t digitised idiots to get together. They explain: “A major factor in this is that both worlds simply fail to connect and meet. There is a clear need for more physical and virtual meeting places and the encouragement from leaders in these sectors to use them.

Suggestions for tackling this include developing ‘21st century coffee houses‘, events or regular gatherings ‘where ideas can flow freely, and relationships and trust can be built‘ between ‘the two worlds‘.

Another suggestion is to: “Invest in proactive ‘connectors’ and ‘super-connectors’ who can work across organisations and sectors in order to cross-pollinate ideas, spot opportunities for collaboration between social innovators and established organisations and encourage them.

The third thematic section, on collaboration, looks at why social innovators and charities who know each other and, in principle, would like to work together, often don’t do so before looking in more detail at the different possible roles they might play in a partnership – and some examples of existing partnerships.

Recommendations for promoting collaboration include suggestions for ‘Incentivising Collaboration’ based on the notion that: ‘Current funding for innovation rarely sets out to encourage established organisations to work with social innovators to help them scale‘ and that ‘Policy makers and funders can play a role by signalling to established organisations that they have important roles to play in supporting social innovation and giving them permission and encouragement to participate‘.

This ‘signalling’ would be delivered primarily in the Cuba Gooding Jnr sense based on suggestions to: “Develop a new fund where social sector organisations commit funding to develop and scale social innovation on a thematic issue, which is matched by Government and business” and “Develop more focused, thematic funding and support programmes that encourage the development of ‘collective impact networks’ around specific social challenges, e.g. Big Lottery’s Realising Ambition programme.

Another idea is to: “Revise accelerator and incubator programmes and innovation competitions to engage with potential scale partners from the outset.

While stereotypical thinking and organisational culture do matter, and money won’t break down barriers on its own, when well directed, it’s a very effective tool. The current government’s support for social innovation is a good thing and the involvement of people from outside the traditional social sectors with new ideas and different skills is a positive thing as well.

The role of people who actually use services in social innovation is even more important but it would be ridiculous if we saw the development of a social innovation industry where the only people not involved were large social sector organisations delivering existing services. ‘When Bees meet Trees’ suggests something better.

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One response to “Tell it to the trees?

  1. I tuned into this suggestion above all “Develop a new fund where social sector organisations commit funding to develop and scale social innovation on a thematic issue, which is matched by Government and business”.

    It might well have come from this copyright material which has been readable online since 2007.

    “Project funding should be placed as a social-benefit fund under oversight of an independent board of directors, particularly including representatives from grassroots level Ukraine citizens action groups, networks, and human rights leaders.

    This program provides for near-term social relief for Ukraine’s neediest citizens, most particularly children who normally have least possible influence and no public voice. Over a few years time, the net cost financially is zero. Every component is designed to become financially solvent, through mechanisms of cost-savings and shared revenue with other components. One component, Internet, provides essential communications infrastructure as well as a cash surplus to be used to offset any lingering costs of other components such as childcare, and otherwise goes to a permanent social benefit fund under oversight of the aforementioned independent, citizens-based non-government board of directors.

    Any number of other social enterprises can be created. Furthermore, any number of existing for-profit enterprises are entirely free to contribute any percentage of profits they wish to increase the proposed initial $1.5 billion social investment fund. If for example the total fund comes to $3 billion, that amount would generate at least $300 million per year in a hryvnia deposit accounts at any one of several major Ukrainian banks, to provide ongoing funding to continue to create and expand social enterprises.

    This strategy places adequate funding for social benefit under control and management independent of government and the very obvious vicissitudes and conflicts inherent therein. ”

    To illustrate that this kind of innovation will never happen, I share the experience of having what we argued for read back to us recently by a group of academics. I relate how USAID the EU and many other large scale social organisations disregarded us:


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