Guest Blogger: Tim Glynn Burke on “The Power of Social Innovation”

Many thanks to Graham for allowing me to post some ideas about our new book, The Power of Social Innovation

One of the ways we introduce the book is in the context of existing literature on social entrepreneurship:

Many have written on the efforts and attributes of individual “social entrepreneurs,” a term popularized by the exceptional work of Bill Drayton of Ashoka. Notable contributions include How to Change the World by David Bornstein; The Power of Unreasonable People, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan; and Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek’s Life Entrepreneurs. Recent books such as Forces for Good, by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, and The Charismatic Organization, by Shirley Sagawa and Deb Jospin, chronicle the features of high–performing organizations run by social entrepreneurs. This book builds on those insights but looks beyond entrepreneurial individuals and organizations to entrepreneurial networks and fertile communities.

In truth the books we listed are all fairly recent and fall within a narrow sliver of a young field.  The topics we write about build on much more extensive discourses in the fields of public management, nonprofit management, networked governance, social policy, urban planning, education policy, and more.

During our research we often identified some underexplored tension between government and social innovators, only to be reminded that many others had studied and written on that very topic. For example Charles Leadbeater, whom Graham has highlighted on this blog, has been writing about social innovation and civic entrepreneurship, two concepts we came to embrace in our research, for at least a decade.

Our own research began with an executive session at the Harvard Kennedy School. The sessions, which spanned two years, brought Harvard faculty together with practitioners and leading thinkers to dialogue and push forward the “frontier” at the nexus of government and social entrepreneurship.

One member introduced herself to the group by saying, “I didn’t know I was a social entrepreneur until I got here today.” Other members were constantly reminding the rest of the group (comprised of progressive and/or innovative social entrepreneurs and city officials) that there is a long tradition in working class communities and in communities of color of social innovation and change, from unions providing basic services like housing to the creation of historically Black colleges and universities. Many found the “modern” social entrepreneur movement elitist and under-appreciative of history.

The mayors in the room, meanwhile, wanted to make sure the new generation of social entrepreneurs understood, as effective as their model might be, that they could only help with but one of a hundred issues cities regularly face. And that there was no way any new idea could ever be imported or moved beyond the margins without serious political maneuvering. We supplemented the sessions by talking to some 100 entrepreneurs from across sectors in order to find tangible solutions to these early insights and concerns.

I think our book’s contribution to the social innovation literature then, to put it more precisely, is to:

  • bring more attention to this idea of social innovation coming from among the public sector;
  • begin to examine social innovation more closely in the context of local social service delivery systems, in particular those systems dominated by government dollars and rules;
  • encourage social entrepreneurs to engage, rather than avoid, government as part of their mandate, vision and theory of change; and
  • bring attention (and offer some strategies showing early signs of progress) to the stumbling blocks and barriers—whether they be cultural, political or bureaucratic—that are holding back the progress that social innovation promises.

Tim Glynn Burke

3 responses

  1. This looks like a very exciting addition to the ever broadening conversation around social innovation. With social innovation perhaps beyond the stage of initial excitment, it seems critical to do what these authors have done, which is to connect social innovation to broader social structures and processes while holding onto some of that original excitment. The role of government seems to me critical to any sustainable social impact coming from innovation processes, and yet the language of social entrepreneurship and innovation can at times be as anti-government as that found in the literatures on business entrepreneurship and innovation (which also of course depend heavily on government support). Developing a sophisticated understanding of how states and non-state innovators can work together is a much needed step in developing real theories of social innovation. I just ordered the book and am very excited to read it!

    Tom Lawrence
    Director, CMA Canada Centre for Strategic Change
    And Performance Measurement
    Faculty of Business Administration
    Simon Fraser University

  2. I was struck by your description above about how difficult it is to get social innovation ideas from the margins into the public arena. I have interacted with a few social entrepreneurs who have confronted the same obstacle. So my question is about how social entrepreneurs might overcome this. Unlike business entrepreneurs who largely only interact with instruments of government for operating permits and tax purposes as a final step to launching a planned enterprise; social entrepreneurs often require the participation of government bodies to ensure that the many departments and services involved in dealing with human welfare are considered and aligned. I was wondering at what stage and in which ways successful social entrepreneurs were able to engage with and leverage government and government agencies to bring about social change.

  3. Dear Tom and lpapania, thank you for your comments.

    We offered some examples of social entrepreneurs who have engaged government in a collaborative way, but many of the most interesting efforts we highlight are working to disrupt how a government agency operates as much as they’re trying to figure out how better to work together.

    lpapanis asked, from the social entrepreneur’s perspective, how and when it’s best to engage government? We tried to identify some strategies that social entrepreneurs had used to some success. YouthBuild USA’s Dorothy Stoneman, for example, suggests waiting until you can stand ready with evidence of excellent results but suggests immediately starting to mobilize political allies and supporters.

    At the same time, she insists that YouthBuild retain a distinct identity from government while receiving significant public investment. Stoneman told us, “We say we believe in the power of love. We try to communicate to local staff the ways in which we have to care about young people for it to work. That isn’t what government does.”

    Another thing to keep in mind is that the levers of a startup nonprofit are different than a more established organization like YouthBuild USA or J.B. Schramm’s College Summit. When College Summit started, it was offering a unique and effective service to school districts looking for increase the number of students going to college. Today, Schramm and staff are important advocates for public education reform, specifically re: standards and measurement.

    If interested, you can hear Dorothy and J.B. talk about this very topic during our August 3 webinar (

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