The following article was developed by Green Comma as a discussion resource for use in grades 9–12 classrooms as well as in freshmen college classrooms.
Principal writer, Douglas Houston, is a lawyer, living in Cambridge, MA, and a frequent collaborator with Amit Shah, cofounder and managing director of Green Comma, an education resources development company, based in Somerville, MA, specializing in digital publishing and open education resources.
Content for the article was created through exclusive interviews with the principals of the two organizations. All conclusions are the writers’ own.
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
Traditional forms of effecting social change seem wanting. Whether it is government, hopelessly gridlocked by partisanship and controlled by ideologues reluctant to compromise, or nonprofits dependent on philanthropic dollars and subject to the vagaries of a turbulent economy, those seeking to effect change are exploring other avenues. On the other hand, technological innovations and the concomitant cultural changes are providing alternative approaches to affecting change.
Into this environment come two recent examples of these changes, the College of Social Innovation (“CSI”), which seeks to exploit these changes and educate and nurture their leaders, and DoneGood, a for-profit startup that offers a smartphone app that puts socially conscious consumers in touch with like-minded businesses. Both entities began in 2015, both are based in Boston, and both recognize the need for alternative paths to social change. Both entities seek self-sufficiency by capitalizing on new technologies and sensitivity to the market forces.
CSI was founded by Eric Schwartz and Lisa Jackson. Schwartz cofounded and was CEO of Citizen Schools, which recently celebrated its 21st anniversary and currently has a budget of $30 million. Relevant to CSI, Citizen Schools partners with several universities to offer master’s degrees in education to Citizen School teaching fellows. Schwarz is also the author of The Opportunity Equation, addressing income inequality and education. He has also contributed to such books as Waiting for Superman, and has written numerous articles on education. Jackson, after teaching at Boston College, became Project Director for GEAR UP, a program increasing high school students’ access to college. After a stint as Vice President for Performance and Outcomes at the Home for Little Wanderers, the largest human service agency in Massachusetts, she moved over to the philanthropy side as Vice President of Research for the Center for Effective Philanthropy, and ended up as Managing Partner for Portfolio Investments at New Profit, a community of social entrepreneurs and funders supporting college access and living-wage employment.
Given the depth of Eric’s and Lisa’s experience, it is not surprising that CSI has a world view and clear mission: “Humanity faces grand challenges ? from climate change to growing inequality, struggling schools, and jobless families.” What these challenges require is leadership, “ranging from social entrepreneurs to social workers. . . oriented
toward social justice and adept at the 21st century skills of communication, data-based management, interpersonal relations, and innovative problem solving.”
Unfortunately, the social sector is running a leader development deficit. Internal promotions to top management positions for nonprofit entities is less than half that of for-profit companies. Approximately 40 Boston nonprofits revealed that only a third of the nonprofits felt their new hires were prepared for the job and only 5% felt the pool of new hires was diverse enough.
CSI, which is not a brick-and-mortar college, partners with existing colleges to provide an experiential and course dependent program, much like the student abroad programs. Students take courses in social innovation and work at existing social sector jobs, mentored by trained younger leaders in those businesses.
Market Sensitivity, Something for all Parties
As part of the new social sector reality CSI is market sensitive, offering something to all the parties at the table. To the student CSI offers experience and training in four competences: communications, exposure to diverse communities, data-driven decision making, and creative problem solving; with courses rigorous enough to qualify for 16 credits from their home college.
The social sector benefits by getting its leadership pipeline fed with trained young people from a diverse pool of students. Jackson emphasizes, “We’re intentionally working with colleges and institutions where there are first- generation students, students of color who don’t have access to these networks. They might be low-income students, or students who have chosen another path and don’t have access to the things the elite institutions have to offer.”
The nonprofits gains as well. “If you tell a nonprofit that they’re going to get an intern, they’re going to run the other way. . . the nonprofits have to commit one of their staff to serve as mentor, and that mentor is going to receive training from usﾅthat person gets additional professional development for themselves…then you have two people in the pipeline, the undergraduate and the person at the nonprofit who has additional experience supervising and managing, mentoring, and can take that to the next level as a leader in the sector.”
The colleges benefit too. “The colleges are in a hard spot, they’re too expensive, students are desperately trying to get an education that matters and is relevant. Colleges don’t have a lot to offer in that way. . . (On the other hand) there is no additional cost . . . we’re leveraging the existing tuition that the students are already paying, to cover the cost of this program, like study abroad.”
While CSI is dependent on $5 million philanthropic funding for the first five years, thereafter it expects to rely on the students’ tuition. In that way CSI’s funding plan is attractive to its initial funders; it is a fixed number for a fixed period of time, with a tangible result at the end of five years. And finally CSI gets self-sufficiency. As Jackson points out,
“Eventually you run out of philanthropy, or you chase the philanthropic dollar in a way that undermines your mission…. If we stick with philanthropy we will be at the whim of whatever new thing they’re interested in, and it won’t stick . . . the goal is to then be philanthropy free after five years, because the cost of the program is designed to come out of the cost of (the student’s existing) tuition.”
And, finally, CSI seeks to influence not only the social and private sectors, but also the public sector. “The social sector is not just nonprofit direct service, but also includes government, hospitals, education.” The fact that some of these leaders will end up in the government acknowledges that change may come from any sector and probably needs to come from all sectors.
CSI has already secured its first 15 students to begin their course work and internship on September 4th, 2016 with an expected 45 more students next spring. They have agreements with two colleges currently and expect two to four more colleges in the coming months. As for intern placements, CSI had 37 social-sector organizations apply for their students, and accepted 15, one of which is a government agency. While their philanthropic funding has been meeting expectations, they also have received their expected tuition amounts from the colleges, so they are on track to being self-sufficient.
For CSI, social innovation is about “disrupting the status quo, bringing ideas to the social sector, some of which may have been tried before . . . but we’re doing it in a different way.”
DoneGood is the business side of this new environment. “We believe companies can be profitable and do the right thing at the same time.” It offers a free smartphone app, both iPhone and Android, that lists retail businesses that embody “doing good for people and the planet . . . a cleaner environment, better pay for workers, stronger local economies. . . .” The businesses it lists have been accredited by social sector entities DoneGood calls its “partners.” These partners include such entities as B Corp, which certifies businesses’ social and environmental performance and Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts which works to build a local, green and fair economy. DoneGood then offers community participation by encouraging consumers to add their comments about these businesses and upload photographs.
DoneGood’s founders, Scott Jacobsen and Cullen Schwarz, met in Washington, DC, working at the intersection of government, philanthropies, and NGOs. As Jacobsen tells it, “thinking we could make a change through the traditional means that people go into.” Cullen had worked for United Students Against Sweatshops in college, but when he went to buy his own clothes he couldn’t tell what was made in sweatshops. Jacobsen had a similar experience with recyclable goods. His lunch spot offered everything in recyclable containers but there was no recyclable trash bin. After attempts to bring this up with the owners, Jacobson took his business elsewhere. They together wondered, “Why is it so hard to find businesses that share our values?”
They applied and were accepted to the Harvard Innovation Lab with nothing but the idea that people needed a way to find retail businesses that shared their values and the name “DoneGood.”
The Business Model
An example of the new social sector model, DoneGood is a for-profit business which grew out of a perceived need, and acknowledges a reality as old as Adam Smith, “We live in a supply and demand economy…”
“The more we demand products and services with a positive social impact, the more the market will supply them. That leads to a cleaner environment, better pay for workers, stronger local economies and more. Together, we can support more businesses doing the right thing, and create a financial incentive for more businesses to follow suit. We can create a marketplace where business don’t just compete to show they have a good product at a good price, but also compete to show they’re doing the right thing.”
Consistent with the social sector’s need to be market sensitive and offer something to all the players, DoneGood offers its users an aggregation of like-minded businesses, along with the opportunity to share their opinions about those businesses. To its “partners” it offers exposure and a forum for their values.
To the businesses DoneGood offers a direct advertising opportunity. Businesses spend money on “cause marketing” through one-off campaigns around particular events like Earth Day, but those efforts don’t target the people who really care about those issues. DoneGood provides constant advertising targeted at those people. Scott is certain that consumers are willing to spend more for products and services consistent with their values, and “have greater brand loyalty when they know the business behind it is working hard doing the right thing.”
Last August, when DoneGood launched its app, the Boston Globe dubbed it “Yelp with a conscience.” To quote Schwarz, “The long-term vision is to create a new kind of marketplace where businesses aren’t just demonstrating that they have a good product at a low price, but a positive social impact to a large community of people who care about that. Are products locally made, organic, sustainable? How are workers paid? A large and growing numbers of folks want to make sure they’re supporting businesses that share their values.”
Whether this is a radical change in the market, or an evolution in the valuing of goods and services is unimportant. The new entrepreneurs don’t care whether they are merely adding social sector values to the traditional market attributes of functionality, durability, pricing, and attractiveness. All that matters is, “will it sell,” and “does it effectively further our ideals?”
How is it working?
For now, DoneGood is surviving on its founders’ commitment to their ideals. They have thousands of users in the greater Boston area, without spending a nickel on advertising; and they have over 1,000 businesses signed up. They were the official app of 2016 August’s Boston Green Festival and invited back for 2017. In September 2016, they were a partner of the Boston Local Food Festival sponsored by the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts .
As both business owners and advocates for social change, Jacobsen and Schwarz continue to explore other avenues to expand their business and their impact on improving local and sustainable economies and the environment. They have listened to their customers, there is a second-generation app which allows users to add pictures and reviews concerning non-social impact factors, like whether the food tastes good and the ambiance is attractive.
Whether it is the technological changes creating the social media revolution, bringing an awareness to more people of worldwide problems like the environment and economic inequality, or a cultural shift blurring the lines between private and public sectors, that has introduced such concepts as a “third bottom line” or “triple bottom line,” educators and entrepreneurs are developing ways to address these changes, to fill gaps in education and the market. DoneGood and the College of Social Innovation are important contributors to this environment.