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GSSW Offers Field a New Approach

Lab focuses on blending social innovation with social work practice

09/08/11
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Stephanie Berzin, right, and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes co-direct a Graduate School of Social Work program that trains social workers in the entrepreneurial practices of social innovation. (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Sept. 8, 2011

In an effort to transform the traditional yet outdated model of social work, Boston College has launched the nation’s first program to train social workers in the entrepreneurial practices of social innovation.  

The Social Innovation Lab, developed in the Graduate School of Social Work, blends social work and entrepreneurship in a new approach considered critical during an era where government funding cuts have forced human and social service agencies to serve more clients with fewer resources.    

“The entrepreneur and the social worker are both problem solvers at heart,” said GSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi. “But their worlds are so different that there are few opportunities to bring these two groups of professionals together. The goal of the Social Innovation Lab is to provide that space where both can work together to find solutions that can help organizations or companies and the people they serve.”  

Lab co-directors Stephanie Berzin and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, assistant and associate professors of social work, respectively, designed the lab as a place that promotes “social innovation from within” for existing social service organizations and offers a place to develop and test new approaches to problem solving.   

Agencies involved in social work have had limited opportunities to pursue social innovation because they are often under pressure to address immediate needs, said Pitt-Catsouphes, who also directs BC’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work. The goal of the lab is to begin to change that.  

“Social service and human service organizations need to reposition themselves to take full advantage of new ideas,” said Pitt-Catsouphes. “The world has changed and social work needs to keep pace. So there are some tremendous opportunities for social work to be a part of the social innovation discussion.”  

The lab will admit a class of four or five organizations on an annual basis, assigning faculty and graduate students to work with their project teams. At a “rapid prototyping day” each project will be reviewed for possible solutions and strategies. That process produces an action plan that’s then tested by the organization in a pilot phase. Finally, the teams will return to the lab to discuss the results of the project.  

Two organizations that are participating in the inaugural class say the lab offers a rare opportunity to take on a tough issue and quickly develop a workable solution.  

The Boston-based Home for Little Wanderers, one of the oldest child welfare agencies in the country, wanted to improve the range of expertise offered by life coaches working with 100 young adults, ages 18–22, who need services designed to help them successfully transition from their involvement with the state’s Department of Children and Families to independent living.  

“The Social Innovation Lab at BC has given The Home For Little Wanderers a process to guide our team in its efforts to develop innovations we think will transform the lives of the young people we serve through our Young Adult Resource Network,” said Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president and CEO of the agency. “The lab has given us the support and structure to create the best new ideas enabling us to implement and sustain a vital program that encourages young adults to make good decisions about their futures and gain access to the resources they need.”  

Founded in 1998, HouseWorks has served as a business that combines entrepreneurship with health care services. The private home care company provides home health aides (associates) to seniors who need support to live independently. HouseWorks entered the lab to advance a project to better connect associates with prospective clients, the company and each other.  

“We invited associates to participate on the lab team, and their input made the results of our pilot project more relevant,” said HouseWorks co-founder and CEO Andrea Cohen. “Staff at all levels of the organization has been involved. We knew we didn’t want it to be a top-down process. We collaboratively solved problems and created solutions.”  

Berzin — author of an upcoming article titled “Where is Social Work in the Social Entrepreneurship Movement?” — said the lab provides faculty with unique research opportunities and gives graduate students a broader range of experience.  

“It is no secret that funding for social services has been jeopardized by the financial and budget crises,” said Berzin. “Our students are going to be entering a new professional world where they need to be aware of business models, in addition to the practice of social work. This experience will allow them to tell their future employees they know their way around a business plan. They’ve done that and they are comfortable incorporating that into their work for others.”