The San Diego Social Innovation Trust

by Meredith McNair on October 13, 2011

Tagged as: Association / Cooperation / Local Economy / Safety / Health / Care of People on the Margin

One of the greatest hindrances to solving a community's social issues is a disconnect between its public, private and philanthropic sectors.  Last April, San Diego consulting firm Harder+Company Community Research and a small group of community leaders initiated a project to spur collaboration between these sectors.  The group's founders hope to establish a "culture of collaboration and creativity" in which businesses, foundations and non-profit organizations work together to become more efficient, effective and innovative.  They want to show that each sector can meet its own goals while sharing a wider agenda. 

Harder+Company began this project after witnessing a lack of communication and collaboration between the various sectors trying to solve the same community problems. Harder+Company saw that everyone involved could achieve more by approaching problems together and by using more innovative approaches to address entrenched issues. Funding is especially limited in this economy and will go further if the different parties consolidated their efforts. San Diego's private sector and universities are recognized as innovative national leaders in science and technology, yet these sectors are not engaged in efforts to address San Diego’s poverty, violence, homelessness or youth issues.  

So the leaders of the new project, called the San Diego Social Innovation Trust, contacted community leaders from all sectors: chief executives, government officials, non-profit leaders and foundation representatives.  Several convened at an initial meeting to discuss the possibilities for collaboration.  The discussion was based on Peter Block's "Six Conversations That Matter," which would serve as a guide toward building a positive and inclusive atmosphere.  From there, participants formed a design team and committed to four monthly meetings, the last of which took place this August. 

Over those four months, the team created a detailed vision, mission and objectives that it has presented to an advisory group of foundations, businesses and community groups. The vision includes a business plan for launching an online hub for the Trust.  The site would provide training, research and information exchange, asset maps of collaborations, community engagement tools, discussion boards and other useful resources.   The Trust is holding a community Charrette [a technique for consulting with all stakeholders] in early November to develop the operational plan and partnerships that will deliver the Trust services.

Once the project officially begins, it may focus primarily on health and human services issues.  Several pilot projects are under consideration including the Trust’s support of a small grassroots organization of black contractors who provide job training to former prisoners in energy-efficiency upgrades to homes.  Another would help the county create a health information exchange network between healthcare providers and social service agencies. 

One strength of the Trust is that it can connect groups from a wide range of authority levels.  It might unite a small, budding organization and a countywide government department, giving the small group a chance in an otherwise muddled and disconnected political scene. 

Leslie Clarke, one of the founding members of the Trust, stresses the importance of engaging the business community in collaborations.  It can be difficult to sway profit-minded companies toward collaborative investment in the social sector, she said, so it helps to provide a value statement that asserts the broad community benefits of the alliance.  The extra effort is well worth the chance for the other sectors to tap into the private sector's innovative and adaptive 

Although the Social Innovation Trust project began only a few months ago, it has attracted significant support and has sparked tremendous discussion in the community. New challenges are likely to arise this fall as the Trust makes headway on its stated goals and commences its fund-raising. First it must present itself clearly so that people in the community understand its goals and the progress it can ignite.  Then they need an organized system of receiving and approving project requests.  They must also develop a methodology and training system for the collaborations in order to guarantee consistent performance. 

Budget shortages plague organizations and governments everywhere, but the Trust hopes to prove that cross-sector collaboration can produce social sector solutions that are both lasting and affordable.