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A Conversation on Social Innovation: Christine Beckman and Tara Roth


On the occasion of the release of a new report by Christine Beckman and Claire Zhang, Goldhirsh Foundation and LA2050 President Tara Roth connected with Beckman to discuss key findings, as well as the roots, practice, and future of social innovation.

Beckman is the Price Family Chair in Social Innovation at the USC Price Center for Social Innovation. She is also a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy. The report analyzes submissions to the LA2050 Grants Challenge from 2013 to 2019, through the lens of social innovation.

The LA2050 Grants Challenge is an annual call for ideas to make LA the best place to connect, learn, live, play, and create. Since 2013, the Goldhirsh Foundation has launched nine cycles, giving more than $9 million to 125 impactful organizations, with the help of hundreds of thousands of people casting votes in support.

The conversation between Roth and Beckman is below:

Tara Roth: Hi, Christine. I felt so honored when you asked to take a deeper dive into the data we’ve gathered through our annual LA2050 Grants Challenge. What interested you about studying the Grants Challenge and its submissions?

Christine Beckman: Hi, Tara. My curiosity was piqued when you told me that you were going to put all of the applications you have received for the LA2050 Grants Challenge on your website as a way to educate and help applicants with the grant writing process. I thought that was such a generous idea, and, from a research perspective, it offered a great opportunity. We often only know the winners of awards and grants, we don't know who applied. From a scientific perspective, this is a problem. It's actually one of the challenges of benchmarking more generally: it's hard to know what dimensions account for the success of an idea or program when you only know the success stories. To make good inferences, you also need to know the attributes of the organizations or ideas that didn't win.

Having recently relocated back to LA, I wanted to learn what social innovation looks like in LA. As a prominent local funder, you are attracting a lot of the folks doing exciting new things in LA. It's great to know who the winners are, but there is so much to be gained by seeing the whole range of social innovation activity.

TR: When you shared your preliminary findings with us, you mentioned that your own definition of social innovation evolved substantially over the course of this research. Can you share a little more about that evolution? Why exactly is social innovation so difficult to define?

CB: Let me start with our definition of social innovation and work backward. In a new paper reviewing the field of social innovation, we define social innovation as “a novel process or product that intends to generate more effective and just solutions to address complex social problems for collective gain.” But there are a lot of definitions out there! That's because social innovation is a relatively new term both in universities and in practice, and it takes a while for a field to coalesce on a definition. Indeed, there is still a lot of discussion about what social innovation means. Stanford Social Innovation Review, a publication dedicated to bridging the academic and practice world in this space, was only founded in 2003. And the term probably first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Compare that with the concept of philanthropy, which was first coined by the Greeks in the 5th century AD, and emerged as a field in the US after the Civil War. Social innovation is a very new idea!

But to your question, let me give you one example of how our definition evolved. When we think about social innovation processes, we think about how they differ from traditional policy processes. Like innovation more broadly, we expect those engaged in social innovation to be testing their ideas, piloting, iterating and even pivoting. We certainly saw attention to metrics and measurement within the LA250 grant applications (89% of the applications talked about how they would evaluate their project), but the idea of tweaking, iterating, and piloting ideas was much less prevalent than we expected. This may be because by the time organizations apply to LA2050 they have generally already tested their ideas and are ready to grow them, but it also could be that there isn't as much iteration and piloting as we expected. This was surprising to us because social entrepreneurship is a big part of the social innovation space, and the idea of piloting come from ideas like Lean Start-Up in entrepreneurship. Perhaps non-profits aren't as practiced at this iteration idea. Certainly there is not a tradition of this in the public sector. We don't really know why we didn't see more – but it suggested that our definition of social innovation (which at that point included the word iterative) was too restrictive. We do think iteration is important to social innovation but perhaps it's still aspirational. We didn't want to exclude so many terrific ideas and projects from even being considered social innovation. The evolving definition, and the deep dive into these applications, gives us ideas of what future studies might explore in more depth.

TR: One of the key findings of your analysis was that a majority of submissions to the LA2050 Grants Challenge did not incorporate “co-production” in their project descriptions. How do you define co-production, and why is it essential to social innovation?

CB: This is a great question and is the second way in which our definition evolved over the course of the project. We expect social innovation to take the views of the community and stakeholders seriously, and to have them engaged in the process. Traditional policy processes and even entrepreneurial processes are often expert-driven rather than stakeholder-driven, and we expect social innovation to be more inclusive. That is because social innovation strives for more effective and just outcomes. It is difficult to claim justice without understanding what the recipients of a program or service actually want or need. Engaging people is critical to that understanding. As you noted, we saw less co-production in past LA2050 applications than we expected. 36% of the applications did not mention stakeholders at all. The most common way that beneficiaries were included was by soliciting their feedback in the evaluation process (11% of the projects). This is undoubtedly important. But we see broader inclusion as critical to social innovation because it ensures that the needs and considerations of those that are being served are taken into account even when defining the problem itself. Those projects that engaged in what we call "co-production" involved residents, citizens, stakeholders, or program participants in the entire project – from problem formation throughout implementation and evaluation. This was quite rare (only 4% of the projects). This is a problem because there are many, many examples of "helpful" ideas that fail because the needs of the community are ignored or misdiagnosed.

TR: Your report also highlights a selection of LA2050 Grants Challenge submissions that qualified as social innovation according to the framework that you use in your research. What can the broader social impact sector learn from these projects?

CB: The projects that we highlighted were those that hit all the aspects of social innovation – projects that were iterating and testing ideas and projects that were engaging stakeholders in a meaningful way, and projects tackling a complex social problem. We had less than 40 projects (of the over 1,000 projects that we looked at) that did all three of these things, and there is much to be learned from their broad ambition and impact. However, I don't want to suggest that there weren't many other projects doing exciting and innovative work. This is partly why our definition evolved. Because there were many fascinating projects doing one piece very well – and there is much to be learned from them.

TR: What else are you working on at the USC Price Center for Social Innovation? And also, I can’t let you go without asking one big-picture question. I’m curious – as an expert in this space – what gives you hope for our collective future?

CB: I just finished writing a paper with colleagues from the center, and in that paper we call for a number of new directions in social innovation research. One is for more research on cross-sector collaborations that take advantage of the unique expertise of different sectors. The Goldhirsh Foundation’s support of the guaranteed income pilot in Stockton, California is a great example of that type of collaboration.

My hope for our future comes from the broad interest I see in tackling the complex social problems that we face. Particularly among the younger generations. My students are passionate about improving the world in which we live and eager to gain the tools to help them in their efforts. They inspire me every day.

TR: Thank you, Christine! And thanks to everyone reading this Q&A.

To read the report, please visit

AuthorTeam LA2050
CollectionLA2050 Reports