Arts, culture and social impact: lessons on how to grow good ideas

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In partnership with Battersea Arts Centre and with generous support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, we’re pleased to be launching the Co-Creating Change Accelerator. Aimed at arts and cultural organisations with a track record of supporting social change, the accelerator is designed to enable initiatives to share, replicate and grow their work.

Under the pressure of the pandemic, our society and economy have faltered, with reverberating and devastating impacts on the arts. Yet, as we look ahead to post-Covid-19 recovery and renewal period, with many seeing this as an opportunity to fundamentally recast the relationship between communities and institutions, the call to tell a different story about a more inclusive economy — with people and the planet at its heart – is gathering momentum. Our artists and the arts and cultural sector must be at the centre of this new storytelling. Without a vision of the future we can’t chart the way forward.

Through the Co-Creating Change Accelerator, The Young Foundation will be working alongside six arts and cultural organistions that operate a proven model for creating social change. We want to encourage wider adoption, awareness and replication of these impactful models across the UK. You can take a peek at the cohort here.

The scaling, spreading, replicating, diffusing, adopting and adapting of social innovations (aka good ideas that work and have a positive social impact) is not exactly a new topic for exploration. Madeleine Gabriel’s ‘Making it Big’ is definitely worth a good read, and contains a compendium of helpful case studies, while this SSIR article by Gregory Dees and Beth Battle Anderson also has some real gems of advice and guidance.

But despite there being many different ways in which social innovations might be ‘taken up’ by others, the UK’s funding, incubator and accelerator infrastructure remains almost exclusively focused on helping emerging organisations to achieve scale through traditional models and understandings of “growth” – ie. chiefly through ‘selling’ work in an enterprise model.

Incubation is there to support organisations to grow. Accelerators are there to support organisations to grow. Social Investment is there to support organisations to grow. We’ve got inadvertently locked into one model for growing social impact, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the economic model that dominates more broadly.

Many good ideas don’t have a business model. Many try and fail to shoehorn their way into one. Many good ideas spread — but so many also don’t. All too often I hear about an amazing, innovative practice in one school that could benefit many others, a way of working with a community that could work in many others, a simple intervention that creates a profound shift in a care home.

So, how do we replicate these impacts without getting trapped in the traditional narrative of growth? What type of alternative infrastructure is needed for these types of initiatives? This is the central challenge we will be working on through the Co-Creating Social Change Accelerator. We will be trialling a whole new approach to acceleration. Innovating and creating is the easy and the exciting bit. Supporting scale, adoption and getting anyone to copy someone else’s idea is an entirely different task.

With that in mind, after many years working in the realm of “pilots and promises,” I wanted to set out a few things that I’ve learned along the way that I hope will be helpful to our new cohort:

  1. People love reinventing wheels – The energy and enthusiasm that comes from responding creatively to a particular problem is very powerful. This energy and creativity is not so abundant when ‘handed’ a solution to implement. So, spreading and scaling must therefore contain within it some element of local creativity in its implementation if it’s going to be successful and sustained.
  2. But you can’t mess about with the idea too much. The need to allow for local creativity and adaptation of a model needs to be finely balanced with understanding what the core components that give the model fidelity. It’s critical to test and understand what’s core to making the idea work, what can’t be changed, and what’s malleable. This can be really hard for the originators of ideas; and purist thinking can often get in the way.
  3. Accept it, you will have Optimism Bias – Just because ‘we’ think something is a game-changing, brilliant idea (because we invented it, probably) does not mean that others will –whatever the level of evidence of impact. You need to have a high level of confidence that what is being proposed has a high value to someone else – and don’t bat away or dismiss feedback you don’t want to hear.
  4. Lack of capacity within the originating organisation to respond effectively to demand. Many organisations who hit upon a neat idea find themselves find that the demands on their time to service those who are interested in their model quite overwhelming and distracting. Offering collateral that provides first stage responses to questions, perhaps also a playbook for how to approach implementation can help. Case studies can be helpful if done well, but completely anodyne and pointless if no attention is paid to what people might actually need to read about to replicate it effectively.
  5. Capacity & Confidence to absorb new ideas. Where the desire to replicate or adapt an idea exists, it won’t always be the case that an organisation has the confidence and capacity to do so. Assess for confidence and capability in organisations who express an interest in replicating your model. See The Confidence Framework which may help guide this.
  6. Funding rarely supports or rewards non-commercial replication – There is an almost universal focus on funding the originating organisation in any effort to scale and spread initiatives. There are hardly ever any awards and rewards for organisations copying someone else. It’s considered a less creative, less exciting endeavour. But if there’s no external validation or appreciation of people who copy other people’s ideas, then we shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen…
  • by Helen Goulden, CEO, The Young Foundation

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