Today was a special orientation session for new grantees at the Social Innovation Fund convening here in Washington DC. We were welcomed by Damian Thorman, the Director of the Social Innovation Fund at Corporation for National and Community Service. He spoke to us about the purpose of the SIF first and foremost being to innovate and find programs that help our most vulnerable citizens have a chance for success. He also talked about being “responsibly and creatively disruptive”. He noted that we have to follow the rules, but within those, we can work to find new ways of solving the problems that persist for large segments of the population, such as the achievement gap.
Being disruptive usually denotes breaking something up, like a disruptive child can disturb the learning environment for every other child in a class. But all we heard today were stories of collaboration and bringing people together, whether it was the new SIF grantees describing programs that broke down walls between child welfare and mental health service sectors, or the older grantees describing the strong support that the SIF program staff provide, or granting organizations talking about their partnerships with their subgrantee organizations. All of the conversation was about bringing people together to help those who are most in need of support, whether they are children beginning school, or young, single mothers, or youth who have been living in foster care and have not had long-term family support to reach their goals. It was all about taking promising programs and making them available to more people, always with an eye towards evaluating results and documenting that things are really working.
One of the most exciting things about the Social Innovation Fund is that it encourages us all to look at things in new ways, to try new approaches to issues, and to think outside the box. So maybe we could look at disruption in a new way, as an act of coming together instead of breaking things apart. Coming together across traditional lines might in fact be a form of responsible and creative disruption. When we partner with each other to tackle issues, we are in some sense disrupting the status quo of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” and “keeping things in the family”. We are saying that although individualism has its place, we also know that by collaborating we can even have bigger effects, and solve problems that are too big for any one person (or agency) to tackle alone.
I have seen great things happen with partnerships, most notably the spread of the KITS Program through the partnership between OSLC, United Way of Lane County and the school districts in which KITS is currently operating. The partners bring funding and other resources like classrooms, food, and bussing for children and the families. And every partner brings a slightly different perspective helps us to make sure that everyone’s voice is represented. Without these partnerships, we would not have been able to help so many kindergarteners and their families get ready for school.
How can collaboration be disruption? By coming together we break down barriers between groups, agencies, and service sectors and allow the people who need them most access to resources and opportunities. For example, with a community agency supplying a program and a school district supplying bussing, we provide a pre-kindergartener and her mother who do not have reliable transportation access to a summer school readiness program. Or we link youths in the child welfare system to needed job training in an entirely different system. We don’t let traditional problems, like lack of individual resources, or language, or battles over whose “turf” a particular problem is, get in the way. Responsible and creative disruption finds ways to reach around and over them. Together, we can all disrupt for the greater good!