In the last decade, funders and practitioners alike have largely coalesced around the need for innovations to scale. However, actually determining what social innovations are needed to fill critical gaps and whether they are effective, much less why they are effective and how they can be scaled successfully, remains elusive. This is the challenge faced by foundation program officers and impact investors as they map white space, source innovation, and deploy funding.
The challenges faced by foundation and investors are twofold – at once practical and theoretical. For example, on the practical ground, funding institutions do not or are not always able to allocate resources to organizations delivering scalable innovative solutions due to information asymmetries and social networks. At the same time, on the more theoretical front, those deploying capital face questions about how to judge innovative solutions and assess their path to growth. And because social issues are complex and often interconnected, it can be hard to judge whether a solution that works in one community will work in a new community with new beneficiaries. Students will confront these issues in this project-based course by developing an investment hypothesis and possible solution for capital.
The final goal for this course is for students to identify and defend an innovation they think could substantially advance impact in their chosen issue area. Through this process, students will learn about what it takes to map gaps, identify and assess innovations, and then determine the feasibility of bringing that innovation to market. Further, we will explore some of the theoretical issues such as the underlying drivers of scaling in the social innovation context, tools in identifying white space and sense-making in the face of qualitative data, and decision-making in ambiguous contexts. Through this process, students will better understand the complexities of sourcing innovations as often takes place inside foundations or impact venture firms, as well as gain tools for assessing social innovations and conducting multifaceted, often qualitative, research.
NOTE: this class follows a similar format to a previous class called Scaling Social Innovation Search Lab. The class has been modified to give students to work on topics that they are interested in, as opposed to a client driven question. During the week of class, students will choose a social, cultural, or environmental issue about which they are passionate and want to spend the term exploring. Any social and/or environmental and/or cultural issues are welcome. They will form teams of approximately 2-4 student with the goal of finding other students with shared passion and complementary knowledge. Then students develop an investment (donation, equity, or debt) by the end of the term.
The course follows a path from thesis development to identification to validation. This is the same sort of process foundation officers and impact investors use when they are trying to identify new opportunities for solving social issues and creating value. The course will roughly follow the following structure:
- Social Investment Thesis Development - Weeks 1, 2 and 3: Students will choose both a social/environmental/cultural issue they are interested in exploring AND a context in which they would implement such an innovation (could be geographic, with a particular demographic, etc.). During this process, students will ideally form teams across the class of 1-3 students. Students will then deep dive into the academic and practical context of their chosen area. During this time students will research and develop a point of view about the key needs/gaps within their specific subdomain. The output of this process will be a social investment thesis that explains why the chosen issue is important, and what gaps exist that need to be filled.
- Innovation Search Results and Rubric - Weeks 4 and 5: Once a thesis has been defined, students will research possible innovative approaches to address the gaps they have identified. This phase will conclude with the identification of 3-6 possible innovations for further exploration, and include the development of a rubric for evaluating the innovations. This first half of the process concludes with the midterm presentation.
- Innovation Evaluation and Choice – Weeks 6 and 7: After identifying innovations in the particular context that was chosen, students will assess and then narrow to the best viable option. This analysis will take into account the gaps in the current landscape, as well as the possible path to diffusion, relative effectiveness, and innovativeness in the context of investment.
- Final Investment Proposal – Weeks 8 and 9: In the final phase of the course, students will propose a specific investment (donation or capital) for the innovation they chose, and will make a case to their peers, much as they might in a foundation board meeting or investment committee type of setting. This proposal will defend the innovations relative impact and suggest the best mechanism by which the innovation could be implemented (such as expansion of an existing organization, creation of a new organization, or adoption by an existing institution). Students will also be expected to provide a high-level analysis of key risks, costs, and other factors related to feasibility.
In addition to work on the project, there will be readings, class discussions, and guest speakers to address various aspects of evaluating and scaling innovations.