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Essential Reading for the Social Impact Innovator

Here are a few (of many!) books that have served as inspiration, knowledge and guidance in my own understanding and practicing innovation for social impact. There are plenty of written gems in the interdiscplinary field of social impact innovation, and these are just a few of the ones that have been insightful, each from a very different angle.

1) Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Guide, Ann Mei Chang

Lean Impact built off the work of Lean Startup by Eric Ries, a foundational book probably familiar to many of you on how to approach innovation methodology. His novel model of build, measure, and learn in rapid iterative cycles has helped guide entrepreneurs in almost every industry. In Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Guide, Ann Mei Chang dives into the application of this model for the social sector - and thoroughly explores how social innovators can apply the practices of lean impact for radical change.

Lean Impact reminds the reader of the north star guiding principles for social impact innovation at every step of the cycle.

Whether due to excitement, attachment, or the requirements imposed by a funder, we can become wedded to our intervention, technology or institution. To make the biggest impact, fall in love with the problem, not the solution." - Ann Mei Chang, Lean Impact

This book explores the unique challenges of the social sector - including funding cycles and restrictions, traditional organizational structures, ethical issues, and the interdependency of systemic problems. With a deep understanding of the social sector world, serving as the chief innovation officer at USAID, and technology, working at a range of leading tech companies with a background in computer science, Chang has crafted a formidable bridge building guide between these two worlds.

2) Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results - David Peter Stroh

Systems Thinking for Social Change walks the reader through the process of understanding systems thinking as a tool in social innovation. The industry focus for a long time has been on human centered design and design thinking. This text expands that scope and zooms out to focus on looking at systems, that is - the relationship between parts, not just the parts themselves.

David Peter Stroh highlights how failing to use a systems level analysis can create negative side effects in social change by addressing symptoms not root causes, ignoring how good intentions can produce bad results, creating negative unintentional consequences, and failing to trace our own responsibility in the issue.

“In order to optimize the performance of the entire system, people need to shift from trying to optimize their part of the system to improving relationships among its consistent parts”, David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change

This book gives a practical methodological approach for anyone looking to apply the concepts in a hands on manner. The four stage process introduced can be applied in a workshop setting and is broken down in manageable ways for anyone new to systems thinking. Stroh uses a real example of developing a country policy for a ten year campaign to end homelessness. The book also provides plenty of systemic question prompts, staged processes, mental models, and evaluation criteria.

3) Mountains Beyond Mountains - Tracy Kidder

At first glance, this book doesn’t seem about innovation in social impact. It is a biographical account of Dr. Paul Farmer, an infectious disease specialist who created a public health organization, Partners in Health, over 33 years ago in Haiti. I’ve included it because there are two key themes in the book which are critical to any innovator in aiming to make an impact - the power of being proximate and catalyzing behavioral change in the face of cemented habits.

Mountains Beyond Mountains starts at the very beginning with the young medical student version of Farmer who won a small arts based grant to explore Haiti. His exposure to the dilapidated medical infrastructure compelled him to start practicing and throughout medical school he would fly back and forth between Boston and Haiti to continue his practice. Throughout his journey, he never lost this direct connection with the people he served. It was only through this on the ground exposure, the intense proximity he had to the communities, that he was able to detect an issue with the way tuberculosis treatments were being administered. This discovery led him to a new novel approach, one that would eventually lead to Partners in Health to be the leading organization for a $45 million grant to eliminate TB in Peru. Understanding a problem enough to change it starts with facing it, up close.

Secondly, Farmer encountered a number of issues related to behavioral change. At an institutional level, he had to approach established global organizations and community health clinics and convince them to try his new revolutionary method, one that went against established medical understandings at the time. At an individual level, he had to understand incentives and challenges with patients administering medications and how to increase uptake. Most innovations require an element of behavior change, whether to get organizations to adopt it or get users to use it. Farmer’s experience shows a very personal account of the challenges faced and tactics for overcoming them.


What books have inspired and informed you in the area of social impact innovation?

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