Turning Ideas into Impact

I recently came across this great TED talk by Steven Johnson, a technology, science and innovation author who focuses on the question of where good ideas come from. Steven Johnson on TED

Over the course of 20 minutes, Johnson discusses open innovation as a vehicle for identifying, nurturing and developing great ideas. Innovation doesn’t happen in a bubble, nor in a flash – instead the best ideas are those that have come from connected individuals who make use of “liquid networks.”  “Chance,” he says, “favors the connected mind.”

This topic has been very top-of-mind for me lately, as I dive into the world of open innovation and online collaboration over at OpenIDEO.

As you’ve heard me talk before, OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform where people from all walks of life come together to collaboratively tackle some of our world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges. From improving maternal health using mobile technology to increasing access to sanitation solutions in low-income communities, OpenIDEATORS (as our global community of 17,000+ calls itself) have generated thousands of ideas to improve our world.

It turns out that August marks OpenIDEO’s first anniversary, and while we’re taking a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come, we’re also eagerly looking forward toward what we hope to accomplish in the year ahead.

In some ways you could argue that Steven Johnson’s talk about the genesis of great ideas represents the story of OpenIDEO during Year 1. Through our platform we’ve provided an opportunity for people to connect and for ideas to be shared and built upon. In Year 2, however, we’re hoping to go beyond just being a community of thinkers, and instead figure out ways to become a community of doers.

One common critique of open innovation platforms like OpenIDEO is that impact is slow and difficult to achieve, and it’s something we’ve definitely witnessed over the course of the last 10 challenges we’ve run. The sponsors we work with make a commitment to realizing ideas from each challenge, but achieving and documenting implementation and impact can be slow going due to a number of constraints on resources, time, partnerships and more. Given this, one of our goals for Year 2 is to focus on the kind of impact that isn't always slow; that is, impact via individuals like you and me.

Take our Bone Marrow Donation Challenge, for instance. Ideally, impact in this challenge means actual lives saved through increased bone marrow donation. While this would certainly be an incredible example of impact, it's going to a long time before OpenIDEO and our sponsor have helped connect a bone marrow donor with a cancer patient in need of a transplant. In the meantime, then, we also want to recognize that there are alternative impacts we can strive for in the short term – swabbing a cheek and registering to donate, raising awareness among friends and family, even hosting a bone marrow registration drive, to name a few. The point is: there are many ways to contribute to achieving impact, and many ways to become a doer.

To gear up for a year focused on increasing our impact, OpenIDEO has just launched a new challenge that asks the question: How might we increase social impact with OpenIDEO over the next year?


It’s a question that’s relevant not just for the OpenIDEO community but for the social innovation sector as a whole. What does impact mean on a local and global scale? How can we catalyze people from all over the world to recognize and act on moments of impact? And how might we empower people to open themselves up to the possibility that they can become agents of change? We’re hoping to tackle these questions in this challenge, and I’d love it if you joined the conversation.

Here’s to the start of a brand new year – one filled with new ideas and new impact.

I Am a Social Intrapreneur

Here I am, literally pushing a rock! When you’re looking for CSR work, there’s a very clear mantra that everyone repeats, day in and day out. It goes something like this:

“Real CSR jobs are few and far between. If you want to do CSR, go get a functional job within a big company and innovate from the inside out.”

In social change circles, this mantra could also be called social intrapreneurship. Unlike social entrepreneurship, where you're starting something completely new and distinct, social intrapreneurship is all about finding ways to innovate within the constraints of your current organization.

For instance, if you’re an operations social intrapreneur, you might be on the lookout for ways to streamline your supply chain so as to reduce environmental inefficiencies, but that doesn't mean that your job title has the word 'sustainability' in it. Similarly, if you’re a marketing social intrapreneur, you might find an opportunity to promote the green benefits of your product, even if it’s not an explicitly eco-friendly item. This, at its core, is what social intrapreneurship is all about.

I learned this “innovate from the inside out” mantra early in grad school, which means that while I was a student, social intrapreneurship was often on my mind and in my blog (check out some stories I wrote about Best Buy and eBay as well as a short video interview I gave about it!).

And because I modeled my opinion of social intrapreneurship on the stories I'd learned and written about, I also came to associate the topic with a few specific images and messages in my head: corporate boardrooms in big, boxy skyscrapers; bureaucrats in suits who prioritize profits over everything else; and yes, even pushing rocks up mountains with my bare hands! It might not sound like your idea of fun, but hey – let's just say that if you want to do CSR work, you quickly get used to the idea that your job one day might involve persuading some boulders to start rolling.

Because of these definitive ideas that I had about when and where social intrapreneurship could happen, when I started my job with OpenIDEO I essentially cast off my social intrapreneurship intentions. I mean, folks at IDEO don’t exactly wear suits, and they certainly don’t sit around in corporate boardrooms!

As I’ve settled in to my work and my team, though, what I’ve learned is that social intrapreneurship is actually an integral part of my day job. Without even realizing it, I’ve become a social intrapreneur.

Let's see if I can explain.

OpenIDEO is a social innovation startup within IDEO; that is, we're a new business incubating within the confines of an established organization (no matter how un-corporate it might be). Because of that, we face many of the same challenges our social intrapreneurship colleagues in more corporate settings deal with every day:

  1. Cutting back the number of cooks in the kitchen: As a new initiative, we look for guidance from all corners of the organization, not to mention outside of IDEO too. The good news is that everyone has an opinion, and the bad news is that everyone has an opinion! How do we sift through these differing intentions and use them to make smart choices?
  2. Being bold and realistic: This especially comes into play when we try to balance our potential to grow with our limited capacity and bandwidth as a small team. How do we pursue leads, push ourselves to develop, and be brave and bold – without burning out?
  3. Solidifying “the OpenIDEO Way": Part of what makes OpenIDEO so fun and unique is that mostly everything we're doing is new and uncharted (after all, we’ve been live for less than year!). Eventually, though, you start realizing you’re reinventing the wheel every time you get asked to do something slightly different. Is there a way to stay flexible and open to new opportunities while also developing some standard processes that will help us scale and replicate?
  4. Doing well and doing good: It’s the oldest cliché in the book, but it certainly applies to what we’re working on too. While we are out for social impact, we’re no good to anyone if we don’t make money. How might we find ways to prove our business model and impact our world at the same time?

Ultimately, as a new offering within an established company, we operate very similarly to all the other social intrapreneurs out there trying to create change within their own organizations.  Whether you’re a small CSR team, or a single person with a passion for sustainability or philanthropy, the work of a social intrepreneur isn’t easy. With that said, I can also state with 100% confidence that it’s a lot more fun than pushing rocks uphill!

How are you applying social intrapreneurship within your own organization? What tips, tricks or guidance would you want to share with me and others? I'd love to hear from you.

Social Intrapreneurship at Work

green-recycle-img“How many of you would call yourself a social intrapreneur?” This was the question that Mark Feldman, managing director of Cause Consulting posed to the fifty attendees at this morning’s Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship Conference breakout session, “The Business of Corporate Citizenship: Creating New Social Ventures within Your Company.”

A quick glance around the room showed only a handful would give themselves this title.

Yet, as Mark and his panelists, Amy Skeeters-Behrens (head of Global Citizenship Marketing, eBay) and Nancy Mahon (executive director, MAC AIDS Fund), made it clear to all attendees, anyone considering creating a “social corporate enterprise” within their company is exactly that. Perhaps, Mark suggested, after this session, “you’ll consider yourselves a little bit differently.”

But first: what is a social intrapreneur? According to Amy, a social intrapreneur focuses on “building and developing new ventures within a company, designed to generate large-scale social impact”.

For eBay, this means creating a wide array of ventures – from the eBay Green Team to World of Good by eBay – that enable their buyers, sellers, employees and larger community connect to causes they care about. At MAC AIDS Fund, social intrapreneurship takes the form of the MAC Viva Glam line of lipsticks and lip glosses whose sales support HIV/AIDS initiatives globally.

Throughout the panel I was struck by a handful of ideas and themes that kept cropping up – what I’d call best practices for any social intrapreneur:

Alignment of core competencies and the social venture you’re creating: As Amy stressed, and Nancy reiterated, building these social venture opportunities means taking a long, hard look at what your company does well – and what it might not be as good at. Not only does this ensure your venture will be aligned with what you do best, but it forces you to partner with authentic, credible leaders in the space you want to play in. In eBay’s case, they are great at building shopper marketplaces and providing a trusted space to transact, but they’re not as knowledgeable or skilled in other crucial areas that were necessary to build World of Good. This led them to partner with social entrepreneurs and industry leaders to help build their model – and their credibility.

Creation of a point of view for your venture: Nancy repeatedly brought up the idea that the Viva Glam line of products has been successful because it represents a connection to a singular point of view (HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and support). The great thing about having a CSR point of view, rather than simply a portfolio of smaller causes grouped together, is that this can clearly support the business’s point of view and brand meanings.

CSR needs to be about making money: Both panelists agreed that “profit isn’t a dirty word” and that “you can make money and do good in the world.” This idea is especially crucial for developing the business case for CSR – until you come to terms with the fact that CSR must directly tie to financial outcomes, you won’t be able to create and identify the data you need in order to make a compelling business case for your work.

In all it was a terrific first breakout session, with great ideas and inspiration flowing throughout the room. I can’t wait to see how the next session goes!

Ashley's Note: This is the first of three posts I wrote as a featured blogger for The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship's 2010 Annual Conference. Click these links to learn more about the conference, check out the session description, and to read all the blog posts from the event.

The Basics of Fair Trade

Equal ExchangeHow many of you have heard of Fair Trade? I’d imagine many of you have. But how many could actually define it, or discuss it, or even promote it? My guess is not as many.

That was the case for me until recently. Recognizing that I’d heard a lot about Fair Trade but that I couldn’t actually talk about it at length with anyone, I felt the need for some information and education.

Enter my local Net Impact chapter and the event they hosted this week featuring Rodney North, self-proclaimed “Answer Man” from Equal Exchange.

Equal Exchange is a 24 year-old organization started by three guys trying to answer a question: “What if food could be traded in a way that is honest and fair, a way that empowers both farmers and consumers?”

As the founders saw it, there were three key problems they felt needed to be addressed:

  1. Chronic, generational poverty amongst the tropical farming population, especially coffee farmers. Interestingly, they noted that while coffee farmers kept getting poorer and poorer, the industrialized nations that drank the coffee kept getting richer and richer.
  2. Exploitative and undignified working conditions in the U.S., which they felt warranted the creation of a new democratic and cooperative business model.
  3. Uninformed and disempowered consumers that were unaware of the environmental and social problems present in various production supply chains and marketplace systems.

With all of this in mind, Equal Exchange set out to create an organization that would tackle these three crucial issues.

Today, Equal Exchange sources fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, nuts and berries from farmer-owned cooperatives in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the United States. In their own words:

At Equal Exchange, we’ve created a different path to the market – one that brings farmers closer to you, and delivers more of your dollars to their communities. We do this by partnering with small-scale farmer co-ops that are democratically organized, which means they make decisions on their terms. Through this model, we believe food can become a delicious and powerful tool for creating Big Change for small farmers, their families and communities.

According to Rodney and the Equal Exchange website, Fair Trade encompasses a number of practices and ideals meant to provide adequate protection and support to growers, as well as increased assurance and certification for consumers. Some of these include:

  • Direct purchasing from the farmer cooperatives themselves – ie: no middlemen
  • Agreed-upon floor pricing for commodities so that even in times of financial crisis, farmers earn a living wage
  • An extension of credit by Equal Exchange and other importers so that farmers may invest in new resources and technology to grow a higher quality product
  • A fee paid by importers and wholesalers to cover the costs associated with Fair Trade certification
  • A seal attached to each and every product ensuring certified status to the consumer.

As Rodney put it so cleverly: “We don’t teach a man to fish. We just stop stealing from him.”

And whether it’s through the fair prices they pay farmers, the kind of cooperative organization they’ve created, or the partnerships they’ve built with consumer and faith-based organizations, it’s clear that Equal Exchange is pushing forward with its mission of creating a “more equitable, democratic and sustainable world”.fair-trade

As the talk wound down, Rodney touched on a couple of points that I thought were worth sharing.

When asked about Equal Exchange’s goals for the future, Rodney said that the organization’s explicit purpose is to be an example for others to follow. As an organization, Equal Exchange can only buy so much coffee itself! So its goal is to create a model that others can emulate. And, he said, the one good thing about our economic system is that organizations copy models that work.

He pointed to McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts and Ben & Jerry’s as examples of companies that have gotten into using Fair Trade products. While most would argue their intentions are purely based on maintaining or growing market share, Rodney still sees this as a success – because regardless of their intentions, they're still supporting Fair Trade principles and practices.

Finally, and I thought very insightfully, someone brought up the topic of the “Local Food” movement – that is, the idea of eating locally to promote more sustainable agriculture and food production.

“How does Fair Trade,” the attendee asked, “align with or diverge from the goals of eating locally?”

After admitting that the idea of eating locally can be problematic for Fair Trade proponents, Rodney said the best Equal Exchange can do is provide information and education to consumers looking to learn more. He also pointed out that some products – like coffee, for instance – just can’t be sourced locally.

So, while aBe_Fair neighborhood coffee shop might want to serve sustainably-produced beans, their best bet is to stick with fairly-traded, overseas products versus anything artificially produced closer to home.

All in all, a terrific night of learning, conversation, and food for thought (no pun intended). I encourage you, the next time you’re wandering the grocery aisles, to think about where your bananas or nuts or chocolate came from.

By being thoughtful and educating ourselves about the origins of our food and the people who produce it, we can go a long way in supporting the important mission of organizations like Equal Exchange.

Happy grocery shopping!

Cultivating Change with Youth

One of my goals for The Changebase is to use the blog as a platform for sharing the stories of companies, organizations and people working to create change in their communities. After all, there are lots of examples of great progress being made in CSR, social enterprise, and philanthropy and they should be celebrated! This time around, I'm pleased to share the story of Christine Guardia and her work with KooDooZ.

I hope, after reading Christine's post, you'll be inspired to find your own "life balance of Heart, Mind, Body and Spirit"!

By Christine GuardiaChristine Guardia

We live in a world defined by change – change grabs the headlines and demands our attention.  Our access to information has been heightened with globalization and, as a result, it has further mobilized our communities for change. 

The concept of leveraging social media for social good resonates with me, because that’s what I do for a living.  I am the “cause cultivator” for KooDooZ, a “cause-based” social networking site for youth.  In this role, I cultivate non-profit and for-profit partnerships for the purpose of co-creating and co-marketing real-world events and social impact campaigns.KooDooZThe site’s purpose is to provide KDZ (our users, typically ages 9 through 15) with a safe place online to channel their passions into actions and strategies for social change and personal growth.  For the benefit of our non-profit and for-profit partners, KooDooZ provides event and social impact expertise, delivering collaborative real-world events (such as the Tour De Fitness) and online challenges (such as coat drives) to nurture new youth and family engagement.

Despite the fact this generation (Gen Z) is altruistic and cause-centric, their access to opportunities to “create change” has traditionally been limited.  So far, there have been unequal opportunities for civic engagement before the age of twenty.  By challenging themselves with service learning, volunteerism and personal growth opportunities, KooDooZ KDZ learn outside the boundaries of formal education.  Our technology allows them to access information and craft their own identities in unprecedented ways.

Because kids need a higher diversity of ways to engage as social entrepreneurs, KooDooZ challenges KDZ to find their life balance of Heart, Mind, Body and Spirit.  I decided to do the same; since wEcoUsable Water Bottleorking for KooDooZ, I have been inspired by ChicoBag to stop using plastic shopping bags and switch to reusable bags.  The “Bag Monster,” a person covered in 500 bags (the average number of plastic bags an American uses each year), made me realize I needed to make a change.  Now reusable bags are strategically placed in my car, at my office and near the front door. 

I also carry EcoUsable’s BPA-free stainless steel filtered water bottle, which further reduces my dependency on plastics.  EcoUsable provided stainless steel bottles to the Tour de Fitness (TDF  ’09) participants and also sponsored a challenge within KooDooZ asking KDZ to come up with their own images of sustainability.  The winning bottle design will be produced by EcoUsable and sold via KooDooZ.  In addition, for every bottle sold, the winner will receive $1 and KidShape, a non-profit organization that builds healthy families, will also receive $1. 

The KooDooZ website is currently in Alpha release and this spring we will be launching a pilot program for groups of kids (siblings, classmates, teammates, etc.) and the adults in their lives (parents/guardians, teachers, coaches, etc.) to be some of the first KooDooZ users and provide feedback to help shape the system.  Our goal is to partner with schools, nonprofits and/or companies that would like to help children create change. 

If you would like to utilize KooDooZ to challenge KDZ to achieve in 2010, please contact us at info@koodooz.com.   Christine Guardia is a graduate of the Public & Nonprofit Management Program at Boston University School of Management. In her free time, Christine enjoys spending time with her eight nieces and nephews, walking (she is currently training for an 18-mile fundraising walk this summer) and reading.