5 Disruptive Innovations for the Social Sector

Andrew Wolk
May 4, 2020

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to something Rahm Emanuel, former Obama chief of staff, said about the 2008/09 financial meltdown: "Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It's an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible." It comes to mind because of all the new ways our sector is responding to the pandemic. Could the "disruptions" in the normal way of doing things be turned into "disruptive innovations" like those celebrated in the business world—and help us identify new ways to ensure we're focusing on more people's basic needs being met so they can get on and stay on the Pathway to Lifelong Success I showed you in my last blog post?

The idea, which comes from the late Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen, is about innovations that upset the status quo of complication and high cost in a market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability. Eventually, a disruptive innovation completely redefines an industry.

I'm beginning to see things happen that could lead to that kind of positive disruption in our sector. Here are my top five.

1. Direct cash payments: I've written a lot about guaranteed income. It was the foundation of Andrew Yang's presidential bid. Before the pandemic, most people in this country already lacked $400 for an emergency. Now, all around us, we're seeing a growing number of organizations handing out cash to those in needs—like Give Directly's Project 100: "Vulnerable families have lost their jobs, can't pay rent, and need help now. Together we can make a difference by quickly delivering cash."

Imagine a disruptive innovation that redefines how we ensure people's basic needs are met. Could we find a way to prove that direct cash payments are a roadmap to repairing our broken social safety net as this crisis subsides?

2. Coordinated service: We're seeing unprecedented levels of interest in volunteering right now, even with the challenges of sheltering in place. For instance, people across the country are volunteering to ensure those who cannot leave their homes still have food. Groups throughout our sector are figuring out how to coordinate the work of food banks and volunteers willing to make sure public school students are fed and deliveries are made with the kind of precision needed to ensure food gets to those most in need.

Candidate Bernie Sanders was scolded just for mentioning the 1961 Cuban Literacy Campaign when volunteers—coordinated nationally—successfully raised Cuba's literacy rate to nearly 100 percent over eight months. Imagine if we did the same here for reading and math proficiency, which has been flat or declining across our country for years—with a persistent gap between whites and people of color that is shameful and horrifying. Could that be another disruptive innovation? We already have the infrastructure through federal programs such as AmeriCorps. Millions of people are unemployed because of the pandemic, and some jobs may not come back. Why not put people to work on national campaigns in reading and math proficiency for students and financial literacy for families, just as the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps put people to work during the Depression?

3. Virtual direct service: Covid-19 has forced a great many direct, in-person services to vulnerable populations to go virtual: family home visits, college guidance, and so on. The Women's Breast & Heart Initiative had thousands of volunteers knocking on doors and doing quick prevention exams, with great results. Now that model has gone online—and early reports are good. Imagine how many more "doors" could be knocked on if they could get it just right, ensure quality, and achieve similar results. The scale of opportunity is amazing. It could be a game changer—another disruptive innovation—for reaching many more people at a fraction of the cost.

4. Unrestricted grants: Many people have been advocating for this for a long time; I did so in a recent opinion piece. Covid-19 has brought this longstanding issue to the fore with a vengeance, and now governments and foundations across the country are removing barriers and trusting programs to use grant money as they see best, as the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported. You don't need to look very far to see that the money is being spent at least as well, if not better, than in the past—when funded organizations had to waste some of it on creating countless never-read reports and on all sorts of resources that had little to do with their actual missions to help people.

It would be great if philanthropies and government resisted the temptation to go back to their old ways when the pandemic is over. Can we find a way to make unrestricted grants a sustainable disruptive innovation?

5. Real-time data tracking put to rapid use: The tracking of data during the Covid-19 crisis has been nothing short of phenomenal. We can find key data points online for any country, state, city, or even county—all with tools put together over a matter of weeks. Imagine a disruptive innovation in how our sector uses data that allow us to track real progress along the Pathway to Lifelong Success at the geographic level and disaggregated by race and gender. Sure, those data don't change as rapidly as the coronavirus data, but can't we build the tools for capturing and reporting other kinds of data quickly and putting those data to use? If epidemiologists can identify a hot spot of contagion and mobilize resources to fight it, why can't we do the same with the things that keep huge swaths of our population from getting on and staying on the Pathway?

I'm sure there are other responses during Covid-19 that point to potentially disruptive innovations. As we do things we never considered possible, it's important we think about what our sector can do tomorrow—and how.

Call it corny, but I leave you with Fleetwood Macs Dont Stop. Someday, this pandemic will be over. The title of the song fits our moment.