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Boston College School of Social Work
Center for Social Innovation

“Social service and human service organizations need to reposition themselves to take full advantage of new ideas."

—Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, CSI Co-Director


What Defines the Socially Innovative Organization?

Today’s challenges require that organizations as well as individuals develop innovation competencies. While much has been written and conceptualized regarding the social entrepreneur, or sole innovator developing new institutional structures to respond to social problems, a shifted paradigm requires attention to the potential for existing organizations to develop, implement, and sustain innovation. 

The socially innovative organization is one that has the commitment, readiness, and ability to innovate to respond to social problems. Innovation becomes not just the doing of one novel and effective program, but a sustained ability to continue to respond to new challenges.

Commitment represents the organizational values and attitudes that promote and sustain innovation, which are a culture of innovation, the market orientation, and the expectation of a deep understanding of complex social issues.

Readiness speaks to the necessity to not only have a culture, but also to have the people who understand the need for change and are ready to move forward. Readiness is achieved through future-oriented leadership, engaged teams, and collaborative relationships by which agencies have the manpower to develop, implement, and sustain innovation.

The ability to engage in social innovation is critical to bringing the innovation to reality. Through organizational infrastructure that supports innovation, metrics that calibrate progress, business acumen, and technology infusion, agencies develop both the willingness to engage in social innovation and the ability to implement.

Socially Innovative Organizations

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 is still considerable confusion over the use of these and related terms. Since the definitions of social innovation lexicon vary just as much as the innovations themselves, it is useful to create a common understanding of the language used.

Principles of the Socially Innovative Organization

Social innovation can be thought of as an umbrella term that encompasses the multiple pathways and processes towards innovative solutions.  Social innovation can refer to 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 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 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 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 in which the income generated through the enterprise is utilized to sustain and enhance the agency's mission and programs.  A social enterprise can be developed as a new organization or as part of an existing organization.