Maximizing Social Impact: Where Social Innovation Meets Sustainability

Sachin D. Shah
Graduate Student
RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service


“Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time.”
—Bill Gates, founder of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation



The term sustainability means different things to different people. Environmentalists, entrepreneurs, community planners, and those in the nonprofit world all define the term sustainability in different ways. Now there is another group that is redefining the term sustainability as the intersection between social innovation and entrepreneurship, where a new sense of responsibility to create social change encompasses innovating a product or solution to maximize impact.

These groups of individuals are known as social entrepreneurs—a group that targets an unfortunate but stable equilibrium that causes the neglect, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity. Social entrepreneurs bring to bear their own inspiration, direct action, creativity, and resilience. Furthermore, they aim for and ultimately affect the establishment of a new stable equilibrium that secures lasting benefit for the targeted group and society at large. Social entrepreneurs are most certainly environmentalists, community planners, and nonprofit leaders combining elements from business innovation and entrepreneurial know-how to create enterprises where the business objective is the betterment of life on earth.

Social innovation refers to new ideas that solve existing social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges for the benefit of people, the planet, and the overall public good. Social innovation is critical for a sustainable future, and many individuals (including social entrepreneurs) and nonprofits work for social good and sustainability as well as some government agencies. The question remains, however, who is responsible for social innovation, what does it look like in practice, and how can it create measurable results to enhance sustainability in the real world?

Let’s consider two very different innovators from two very different parts of the world. People find Nobel Peace Prize laureate (and father of microfinance) Muhammad Yunus fascinating for many of the same reasons that they find business entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs so compelling—these extraordinary people come up with brilliant ideas and against all the odds succeed at creating new products and services that dramatically improve people’s lives. Sustainability is at the forefront of their success.

Sustainability is what connects the dots between social innovation and maximizing social and environmental impacts; it sustains the positive impacts of a social innovation over time. Without question, social innovation can ignite a grassroots level movement (see TakaTaka Solutions) with community initiatives to sustain change and maximize impact. And unlike the majority of nonprofit organizations, their work is targeted not only towards immediate, small- scale effects, but also sweeping, long- term change. It is here where social entrepreneurs glean their definition of sustainability as permanent change that also embodies the flexibility of innovating the solution again and again.

Sustainable change includes three key requirements for social innovations: (1) it must make a maximum impact to solve a problem, (2) the solution must be scalable, and (3) it must be financially secure. These three components forge into what is known as the innovation-sustainability nexus where innovation and sustainability are intimately interrelated: innovation is one piece to becoming sustainable and we become sustainable through innovative measures. This concept is seen best through the eyes of social entrepreneurs who have identified key features of their enterprises that sustain their social innovations to make the maximum impact on society.

Social Innovation

We are all striving to affect change in one way or another: change in the way social problems are addressed and/or change in the lives of the constituents we serve. Developing technologies that solve the right problems can be enormously challenging, and then bringing them to the people who need them even more so. Herein lies the core of solving social problems: new products and technologies are not the only areas in need of innovation; defining the problem to begin with and delivering the new product to intended beneficiaries are also important areas of innovation necessary to create change.

The process of solving social problems must start by tapping the power of human action, voice, and vision. Social innovation ignites this process with ideas from an individual or group of individuals who have come together to leverage their talents and skills to create long-term change. The following examples of innovative ideas show how social entrepreneurs have created innovative, scalable, and sustainable solutions to problems that seemingly were too far out of reach to solve. They all have one feature in common: the Dell Social Innovation Competition was a stepping-stone in their journey.

Social Impact and Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin

In 2006, the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at The University of Texas launched the Dell Social Innovation Competition, an avenue to launch a social innovation. The idea is for students to dream up a plan that combines creativity and innovation to tackle a pressing social issue, and offers over $100,000 in cash prizes to put their plan into action. The beauty of this competition is that it encourages students in developing countries, such as India to create change at home with a social innovation designed to tackle a problem (public health, environment, education, and human rights among others) and help every human reach their fullest potential.

The competition has expanded each year since its beginning through the addition of new programs that extend support to students at all stages of their idea generation. For example, the competition now offers two new paid fellowship programs that provide inspiration, mentoring, and support to high-potential students who did not advance to the final stage. One of the fellowships even includes a stipend to spend a summer improving the student’s idea and venture plan.

The now five-year old competition has been critical for launching social ventures centered around sustainability and providing solutions to global environmental and energy problems that plague developing countries. Three out of the five winners of the Dell Social Innovation Competition have focused on environmental or agricultural sustainability in developing countries. Husk Power Systems in India and TakaTaka Solutions in Kenya are two excellent examples of successful social innovation in action.

Husk Power Systems

Husk Power Systems, the winner of the 2007 competition, provides power to millions of rural Indians in a financially sustainable, scalable, environmentally friendly and profitable manner. Husk Power Systems has created proprietary technology that cost-effectively converts rice husks into electricity.

Gyanesh Pandev and Ratnesh Yadav, the founders of Husk Power Systems, both drew on their own local experiences in India and advanced professional training and experiences to create an innovative, scalable solution to a vexing problem. Gyanesh, a native of the village of Baithania in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, had made an interesting life journey via boarding schools to premier English schools in Varanasi and New York and worked in the Power Management Semiconductor industry. Ratnesh Yadav, a native of Patna, had just moved back home from Delhi to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams. The duo sincerely felt the need for rural development in India in general and saw immense opportunities right at home. Rural electrification was considered more of a necessity than an option in villages. The conventional technologies and power grids have failed to deliver and the pervasive energy starvation in the country is immense. A solution that used non-conventional technology for distributed and sustainable generation of electricity was sorely needed.

The team spent years trying to find the right technology that fit the economic model for the rural space, researching energy technologies ranging from nanotechnology driven Polymer Solar Cells to Biodiesel, and pretty much everything in between. This led them to realize how most non-conventional technologies employing renewable resources lacked substance when it came to applying them to solve a broader problem.

Gyanesh then learned how several rice millers in the state of Bihar were using the decades-old technology of Biomass gasification to power their mills using Rice Husk. Rice Husk – perhaps the only Bio-waste in the lives of rural farmers – was the perfect source to power the dream of rural electrification. The innovation created by Husk Power Systems is not only environmentally sustainable but financially sustainable as well. As is true with most social innovations, the solution emerged from a combination of local, community knowledge, expert training, and scalability. Understanding the needs of the community (lack of rural electricity and jobs) and utilizing the unused resources of that community defines the elements of the social innovation.

TakaTaka Solutions

TakaTaka Solutions, the winner of the 2011 competition, is a social enterprise that aims to deliver affordable waste collection services to all income areas in Nairobi, Kenya, recycling and composting up to 85% of collected waste and creating new jobs. The team brings about social and environmental change with a commercially viable business approach by separating organic from inorganic waste and composting the organic waste into fertilizer to sell to Kenyan farmers. TakaTaka Solutions recovers the recyclable waste (paper, plastic, glass and metal) from the inorganic waste. This recyclable waste is then sold to recycling industries leaving only 15% of residual waste for final disposal.

TakaTaka Solutions’ willingness to use two adapted business models, one for higher income areas and one for lower income areas, is a key factor in the company to sustain their innovation. In higher income areas, TakaTaka Solutions collects waste from clients, composts the organic waste at its Composting Facility while recovering recyclable waste at its Recyclable Waste Separation Facility.

In lower income areas, TakaTaka Solutions partners with youth groups who collect waste. These youth groups sell the organic waste and the recovered recyclable waste to TakaTaka Solutions. Ultimately, TakaTaka Solutions (1) provides affordable waste collection services to all income areas, (2) creates employment in poorer areas, and (3) develops a cleaner and healthier environment – all features that illustrate the key principles of the social innovation-sustainability nexus.

The RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service and LBJ School of Public Affairs provide excellent learning opportunities in social entrepreneurship, nonprofit management, and international development. These classes provide the tools that teach students about common patterns that can help innovators transform their ideas into effective, geographically scalable, sustainable solutions for people and the environment.

Generation Impact: Cultural Philanthropy

There are numerous examples of change that combined the elements of cultural and community participation. Many have included major changes from individuals such as Martin Luther King or organizations such as PODER (People in the Defense of the Earth and Her Resources) who are redefining environmental issues as social justice issues to collectively set their own agenda to address these concerns as basic human rights. Empowering communities in this manner contributes to sustainability by widening the area of social interests through the power of human action and voice.

These examples of “cultural” and social change were the inspiration behind Generation Impact, a social enterprise that transitions between culture, society, and global impact— where cultural sustainability meets philanthropy. The mission of Generation Impact is to empower and educate young American children of immigrants to build connections to the country of their ancestors by becoming socially and culturally aware through philanthropy. An interactive media-based educational website empowers youth to give a low-cost, high-impact donation to the cause of their choice in a developing country and receive a proof of impact of their dollars spent. The pilot program for this social venture will launch first in India.

Generation Impact aims to serve two groups: the impoverished in India and the Indian-American youth in the United States. The impetus behind cultural philanthropy is the case that Indian-Americans, for example, are the most affluent minority group in the United States and have the responsibility to give back—not just as adults, but also as youths. The issue is that there has never been a means to empower them to make that connection. Three dynamic impact programs focusing on sustainable growth and impact are offered: GenerationImpact (flagship program), GenerationChildren and GenerationClassroom. Each program has a giving component where youth can donate to a cause based on their understanding of the social or environmental problem and track their impact.

This venture aims to redefine sustainability through the lens of cultural identity. With the explosion of immigrant population (the majority from developing countries) in the United States, children of these immigrants inevitably become separated from their religious or cultural origin. How these children learn about the legacy of their culture is the key question. The answer lies within creating a legacy of giving – providing impact for people in a distant land, the home of your ancestors, while creating change within ourselves to sustain a culture of doing good. This sense of enduring cultural identity is important in motivating positive actions taken with a long-term perspective, which is in and of itself a crucial challenge for a sustainable future. Cultural continuity is a way to define oneself beyond today’s survival needs and wants.

This social innovation hits on a unique way of viewing sustainability: sustaining cultural roots through philanthropic education. The innovation inherent in this project is the connection of two separate worlds and taking on the responsibility to help both causes.

What Does this All Mean?

These entrepreneurial ventures with a social purpose, fueled by innovative techniques, remind us that maximizing impact takes more than just a good idea. It takes vision and understanding that a sustainable and scalable solution is the key to leveraging an innovative idea to maximize social or environmental impact. Furthermore, social innovation begins with ideas from an individual or group of individuals who have come together to leverage their talents and skills to create long-term change. By combining local, community perspectives with the expert training and knowledge of University students, students and community members can create innovative solutions and powerful grassroots initiatives to help solve the biggest problems.

The University of Texas at Austin community, starting with the Dell Social Innovation Competition, can help foster those ideas and help capitalize on students’ innovations to maximize social and environmental impact through sustainable solutions.