Innovation starts with being curious. Calling all the curious!
In its 23rd year, the prestigious Drucker Nonprofit Innovation Awards had 687 applications and 10 finalists, naming one winner last week: HopeLab, a nonprofit that develops games to improve human health and well being.
The finalists have helped to make society more sustainable by addressing pressing human health, education, environmental, and social challenges, such as the availability of safe water.
So often we default to a view of sustainability centered on carbon abatement, energy efficiency, renewable energy or recycling. The work of these nonprofits spotlights additional or new approaches based on shared value, which can provide ideas for unique product, program, or partnership concepts.
The awards, launched by Peter Drucker in 1991, are run by the Drucker Institute of Claremont Graduate University. Drucker, a man filled with curiosity, was a pioneer in management and social theory as well as a writer, consultant, advisor to heads of GE, IBM, the Red Cross, and as a social ecologist. The lessons and legacy of the late Drucker linger on and, in a sense, are renewed and remade each year with the awards.
“In the years ahead, America’s nonprofits will become even more important,” Drucker said in 2005. “As government retrenches, Americans will look increasingly to the nonprofits to tackle the problems of a fast-changing society. These challenges will demand innovation—in services, and in nonprofit management.”
The nonprofit sector is the third largest industry in the United States, with one nonprofit per 175 people.
The winner: HopeLab
HopeLab, founded by scientist and philanthropist Pam Omidyar (wife of eBay founder Pierre), grabbed the $100,000 Drucker prize made possible by the Coca-Cola Foundation. Through its Resilience Initiative, HopeLab addresses the problem of the lack of adherence to medical treatment by young cancer patients. It uses digital games and social technology to help people effectively tackle physical and psychological challenges and increase their self-efficacy.
HopeLab also met a key criterion of the Drucker Award: rigorously documenting measurable impact. To date, the "Re-Mission" video game had the largest randomized controlled study of a videogame intervention ever conducted, with results published in the journal Pediatrics. HopeLab has distributed more than 210,000 copies of the game in 81 countries. It claims a culture of curiosity, complete with its own handout, “Questions of a Curious Leader.”
The finalist with the most intertwined social and environment impact was water.org. The needs are great. The World Economic Forum, in a 2011 report, named water scarcity as one of the top risks facing companies. In fact, 780 million people lack access to an improved water source, about one in nine people. Every minute a child dies from a water-related illness.
In response, Water.org's WaterCredit program helps people with limited access to safe water, sanitation, and financing in the developing world to obtain these necessities. WaterCredit connects financial institutions that can make needed loans available to those in need. Loans mostly go to helping pay connection fees for house water taps and to construct toilets. According to water.org, the loan repayment rate is 99 percent.
Water.org is the result of a 2009 merger between WaterPartners, co-founded by Gary White, and H2O Africa, co-founded by actor Matt Damon. It operates in part with funding from the PepsiCo and Skoll Foundations.
It’s the first program of its kind, serving as a model in the sector. (Before WaterCredit, virtually all water and sanitation "access" programs were charity-driven). As of June, more than 329,443 WaterCredit loans were made. Water.org seeks to expand operations from nine countries into new markets and models, including new products and channels for deployment.
The potential of microfinance to democratize access to capital for water access and sanitation is paralleled by the potential of technology and social media to democratize access to information: Game changing.
Awards finalists highlights
The remaining Drucker finalists, selected for their social and environmental innovations are:
- 92Y, which created #GivingTuesday to catalyze philanthropic giving following Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
- Arogya World, whose mDiabetes program spurs people to adopt healthier lifestyles through text messages.
- Community Environmental Defense Council, whose Taking Local Control initiative makes innovative use of local regulations to give municipal governments the power to stop environmental degradation from fracking.
- Found in Translation, which is helping to lift low-income bilingual women out of poverty through its Medical Interpreter Job Training Program.
- Freedom from Hunger, which is conveying vital health information to millions of impoverished women in the developing world by reaching them through microfinance institutions.
- Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which has diversified its revenue streams, reduced its reliance on philanthropy and added value to the larger arts community through its consulting arm, Lincoln Center Global.
- MIND Research Institute, which has created ST Math, a highly effective visual approach to teaching mathematics based on neuroscience research.
- SightLife, which works with partners across 29 countries to establish eye banks and support more than 17,000 corneal transplant surgeries each year.
Back to innovation
Drucker’s definition of innovation is one I agree with: change that creates a new dimension of performance. Winners of his namesake awards must exemplify this. At the same time, they must create impact, especially in people’s lives. This makes innovation seem pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
That’s not a quick answer. Many of these nonprofits –and innovators – define and cast an innovative solution on a narrow area of a larger problem. Then, they create, validate, and distribute. To do so takes daring. On top of which, in order to develop and advance, it also requires management skills, capacity-building skills, and committed donors and staffers.
The real winners
The work of these nonprofits creates value for society and provides the underpinnings for business, people and communities to thrive. Innovators and change-makers like these appear to solve problems with ingenuity and little money, at least compared to the typically greater resources of business.
Taken all together it’s a pretty big win. The real winners are communities, individuals and the environment as a whole.
These are only a few examples of nonprofits effecting social and environmental change. They confirm that it’s possible to make things happen in areas that strike at the social and ecological commons. I would argue that “getting things done,” and well, is best achieved through sound marketing and management fundamentals.
When I make time after hours and on weekends to teach or train working adults marketing, corporate social responsibility and sustainability in university certificate and executive programs or in workshops, I emphasize the fundamentals. Alongside, I set up discussion and examples of innovation. It helps us to gain practice with thinking creatively in ways that lead us into a more sustainable future.
In a sense, the Drucker finalists mimic their new-product-developer counterparts within the private sector. They imagined a new way forward as architects of innovation and evolved new dimensions of positive social and environmental change.
As Peter Drucker said: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”