Wednesday, January 18, 2012

More on Social Innovation and a Brief Rumination on Language

I just returned from my first pitch session at the UNC Social Innovation Incubator I wrote about yesterday.  Turns out I was wrong about one thing: the Incubator is not exclusively or even primarily for projects that will become c3s.  In fact, two of the three organizations that gave their pitches are more likely to form as for-profits, though their motivations are largely charitable.  Over the coming days I will serve on a panel that will hear pitches from ten finalists.  We will narrow the group to three organizations that will receive space and support from the Incubator.

Hearing the pitches got me ruminating on the language employed by young, campus-based idealists and those who encourage them. 

When I was in college in the early 1980s, the Community Service movement was sweepingthe land.  I volunteered as a coach in an urban soccer league and for a homeless shelter and a therapeutic horseback riding organization and felt I was doing my part to better the world.  A bit later, Service Learning became a rage and it was no longer enough to volunteer for charitable organizations.  With Service Learning, students (and professors) were encouraged to use the classroom to study the systemic causes of poverty and other social ills.  The notion -- essentially correct, I still believe -- was that the service and the learning would both be improved if they were combined.  Along the way, Community Empowerment became the watchword, and those who merely addressed the effects of poverty  -- putting Band-aids on the problems -- were wasting their time.

For a while, in the mid-1990s, the Service Learning and Community Empowerment efforts and language were crowded out by Leadership Studies.  It always struck me as a dubious notion that you could train idealistic young people to be leaders, partly by sending them out to communities in need to lead them toward a better life.  I thought the best thing for the aspiringyoung leaders and the communities in need would be to teach the young ones to listen more carefully, not jockey for leadership positions.  But that's just me.

In more recent years, college campuses have been guided by updated labels for the same sort of work.  When I arrived at UNC, it was all about Engagement.  College campuses were supposed to create symbiotic but essentially charitable relationships by engaging the communities that surrounded them.  Later, similar work took place under the label of Social Enterprise.  Entrepreneurship centers (and clinics) started popping up across college campuses.  More recently, we began marching under the banner of Innovation, Social Innovation in particular; thus the Incubator I have begun working with.

It's mostly the same people, doing mostlythe same things, and much of it (though a diminishing percentage) happens in the charitable sector; however, the labels and the language have changed significantly over the past thirty years.  Anyone want to predict the next wave?

Back to law in the next post.


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