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Boston College School of Social Work
Center for Social Innovation
Kevin Mahoney at the Power of Social Innovation Panel Discussion.

A presentation and panel discussion on social innovation in social work — the focus of the Boston College School of Social Work program in Social Innovation and Leadership. Watch video »

What is Social Innovation?

In the face of persistent and increasingly complex social problems, leaders are turning to social innovation. Social innovation supports the development, implementation, and sustainability of transformational responses to social needs.

Social Innovation represents the power for transformation through the development of new:

  • Thoughts—Creative ideas, paradigms, and concepts about solutions that respond to social needs
  • Action—Sustainable approaches, strategies, products, policies and/or programs that develop economic, technological, or service capacities to address social problems
  • Structures—Alternative processes, practices, and/or organizations that meet social needs and strengthen social justice


Social Innovation
Social Innovation: The Power for Transformation

Speaking the Same Language: Defining the Social Innovation Lexicon

While many people in the practice and academic arenas speak about social innovation and social entrepreneurship, there has been considerable confusion over the use of these and related terms.

Social innovation can be thought of as an umbrella term that encompasses the multiple pathways and processes towards innovative solutions. Social innovation is both an outcome, and a process. It is defined as the solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, and sustainable than previous solutions. It can also be considered the use of innovative practices to do something differently to achieve social change.

Social entrepreneurship is a particular pathway to social innovation.  It uses the principles of entrepreneurship, (which include risk-taking, innovative approaches, change-orientation, and sustainable business models) to develop an initiative/organization to respond to social issues.

In practice, social entrepreneurship typically refers to the development of NEW organizations to respond to social issues. It speaks most directly to an individual or small group starting a new entity that provides an innovative solution to a social problem.

Social intrapreneurship represents an alternative path to innovation, using entrepreneurial principles within an existing organization, or institution to solve social problems. What is distinctive about social intrapreneurship is the pathway within an existing organization rather than through the development of a new organization.  

Social enterprise represents the “how” in one way to accomplish social innovation. It makes use of business models or practices to solve social problems. It may refer to a socially-driven organization or venture that uses market-oriented approaches to achieve its social mission.

Social enterprise can be developed as a new organization or part of an existing organization.