Google is Killing Social Innovation (and you might be, too)

Mark Horoszowski

Mark is the Co-founder of MovingWorlds.org, a global platform connecting people who want to volunteer their expertise with social impact organizations.

social-innovation-mind-mapGoogle, often considered one of the most innovative companies of our time, is killing social innovation. So are Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce.com. And you might be doing it, too.

In an unexpected turn of events, technology innovation is actually detracting from social innovation. According to Peter Druker, the social challenges ahead of us demand innovation – and fast -not in making a new Facebook for dogs, but instead to help fight the most serious poverty, health, economic, and environmental challenges.

Here are 4 keys reasons why technology is detracting from social innovation… and why you’re unknowingly contributing to the problem:

1. Salary Inflation is Making Social Innovation Too Expensive

If you operate a socially driven company, B-Corporation or non-profit, you’re forced to compete for the same technology talent that technology giants with deep pockets are going after. The average developer salary at Google is $110K. MBAs? They start at 113K. What nonprofit, B-corp, or even angel-backed startup can compete with that? By offering six figure salaries for even inexperienced talent, the tech giants are making it too painful to try and start a startup and even more painful to join a B-corp or nonprofit.

Furthermore, these steep salaries make it difficult for people to walk away from their comfortable, high-paying jobs. In his book, Uncharitable, Dan Pallotta paints a portrait that MBAs who want to be philanthropists are better off taking high salaries for a job they don’t care about and returning to the philanthropic world as donors, advisors, or board members. While their donations are certainly welcome and usually do more good than not, philosopher Slavoj Zizek warns that this type of charitable giving is not sustainable and is focused on applying band-aids rather than prevention or problem-eradication. In his moving talk First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Slavoj uses George Soros as an example:

“George Soros is still the old type. In the morning, he grabs the money. In the afternoon he gives half of the money back to charities. There is a paradox… he is repairing with the right hand what he ruined with the left hand”

But there is hope. Organizations like Rework.jobs, Net Impact, B Labs, and are working to connect people to meaningful jobs, and the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes report ranks MBA programs not on average salaries, but on social and environmental impact (congrats Stanford!).

2. Companies and Investors are Rewarding Buyouts, Not Impact

In the startup world, the biggest fiscal reward comes with a buyout, not with social impact. According to Dan Pallotta:

“We reward people that make violent video games by making them insanely rich and putting them on the cover of Wired, yet we demonize people trying to make a living by curing Malaria.”

As a result, the biggest technology companies and eager investors put money behind companies that will get bought, not that are saving the world. Combined with the higher salaries offered by big corporations, this reward system further dissuades people from trying to start something new that has the potential to create a positive impact.

A recent HBR article titled Too Many Pivots, Too Little Passion by Daniel McGinn highlights that

“None of the Y Combinator or Lean Startup companies seem destined to change the world (or, significantly, employ many people); instead of being “built to last,” these firms seem ‘built to be acquired by Google’. “

As a result, people flock to technology startups, not to start mission-based companies. This point is made painfully evident in a recent report from the MIM, which shared that there is a shortage of mission-based companies, even though there is an increase in funding. In other words, there are investors waiting to invest for the purpose of accelerating impact, yet there are not enough of these businesses to fill the demand. According to Rob Katz, one of the authors of the MIM report, “…many investors report that they are struggling to find good opportunities in which to invest for impact.

There are a few accelerators that are working to solve this problem (like Points of Light’s Civic Accelerator, Seattle-based Fledge, Colorado-based Unreasonable Institute, and Seattle-based Social Innovation Fast Pitch), but they are tiny compared to the rapidly growing for-profit accelerator industry.

3. Everyone – Companies and Consumers – Expect Frequent New Releases

Samsung, Apple, HTC, and all other mobile phone makers are expected to release exciting new products quarterly, or else suffer stock marker consequences. As this practice becomes more commonplace, people are no longer willing to wait for innovation. But when it comes to social innovation, we need more time. Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of Acumen Fund, consistently takes the stage to convince people that we need to focus on immersion and patience.

The most pressing problems require more time. Curing malaria does not provide a new and exciting announcement every quarter. It’s a long, hard, slog that is incomparably more difficult than developing a new violent video game, and yet it comes with a fraction of the economic incentive.

Meanwhile, companies like environmentally focused Patagonia, are a rarity. On Black Friday 2012, the biggest shopping day of the year, Patagonia ran an advertisement saying “Don’t buy what you don’t need“. Often compared to Steve Jobs for his visionary and cavalier leadership, Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chounaird balks at investors, the stock market, and the current economic system which rewards waste; instead claiming that companies need to be social activists. During an interview on GreenBiz when the host mentioned the similarity to Steve Jobs, Yvon rejected the comparison saying that:

“Apple doesn’t want you to fix your phone, they want you to buy a new one next year. I can’t relate to a company like that.”

4. People are Buying Into it

I don’t blame people for opting for the higher salaries. After-all, who wouldn’t like to make that much money? But by company-jumping for the purpose of higher salaries, people are unknowingly forcing companies to play this salary inflation game. Meanwhile, I hear time and time again that a lot of people are not even proud of the work they’re doing, but it “pays the bills”. The question begs to be asked:

Do people really need to make that much money?

The income disparity gap in the US is increasing almost as quickly as the scope of our social and environmental problems. In a recent Huffington Post article, Al Gore shared that

“In order to make the U.S. system of capitalism truly sustainable, we must tackle this unhealthy concentration of wealth. The wealthiest one percent of Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The gap continues to widen as the top one percent receives almost 25 percent of annual U.S. income, up from 12 percent just 25 years ago”

Beyond the social problems, there is extensive evidence that these higher salaries aren’t even making people happier. The contrary is actually true. In other words, the money is exciting for a little while, but it doesn’t make your job better and it won’t prevent burnout.

The latest happiness research shows that the happiest people make $75,000.

Why? Well, it’s not really about the money. In his riveting talk “The Surprising Science of What Motviates Us“, Dan Pink explains why money isn’t motivating, and instead, finding a position with “autonomy, mastery, and purpose“. In a related and even more inspiring TED Talk, Simon Sinek explains that we need a “why” in order to reach our potential.

To love what we do, we need a purpose motive, not a profit motive.

Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone. At MovingWorlds, we have an endless stream of people coming to us who are willing – and actively looking – to quit their high-paying job to apply their skills to something that can make a difference.  At a single networking event last night I spoke with 10 software developers who are ready to quit everything and go Experteer with social impact organizations around the world in exchange for free accommodations and the opportunity to make an impact while developing new skills. Not only is it inspiring work to help these people find places where they can make a difference, but the world needs it, too. According to the World Economic Forum,

Behind access to to capital, access to talent is the leading barrier to progress

In other words, if we really want to make the world a better place, we need to more than throw money at it. We need to commit our time, energy, and brain power to it, too. Experteering is a great start, but pursuing a career that also drives social impact is what the worlds need. And according to award-winning author of the Innovators Dilema, Clay Christensen thinks it might be what you need, too.

So How Do We Fix Social Innovation?

We’re not sure… But Kushal Chakrabarti has an inspiring story after walking away from a million dollars at Amazon to focus on social innovation. Instead of building “dumb stuff“, he focused his talents on a microlending network (Vittana) for education that helps over 1,000 youth escape poverty – every week!

Beyond Kushal’s story, Dan has some ideas, too (video below). But I’m more interested in your ideas… Please share them in the comments below.

  • Mike

    Microsoft has donated over a Billion dollars to charity. High salaries allow people to give. This article is ridiculous.

    • Hey Mike – thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m with you, Microsoft’s contributions are super impressive. Beyond charitable contributions, it has also created tons of jobs and has distributed technology to every continent. However, the point of the article (in addition to intentionally being provocative) is to help show that charitable contributions are not necessarily the best tool to eradicate poverty and solve the environmental challenges facing us. If you haven’t, make sure to watch Dan Pallott’s video, as well as the Slavoj Zizek video referenced in #1.

  • Thank you SO much for this article! As marketing coordinator of a little enterprise that is trying its best to follow its social mission of changing people’s minds about the food they consume, I can absolutely relate to the dilemma of how to support social innovation. I am being asked very often why I don’t simply take on a job in a big company, work my way up the ladder, gain a lot of money and influence and then start trying to change the world. The thing is that I haven’t found the perfect answer to this question, yet. Yes, it might be too tedious to change anything if you are just a normal person and not John Wood. And yes, I might want to be able to pay a big vacation to Europe at some point instead of staying at the usual B&B nearby, but life is all about making compromises, isn’t it.

    I guess in the end everyone has to decide for him/herself where to make the cut.

    One thing is for sure: Social innovation isn’t a walk in the parc.

    Throwing money at charities to get a piece of mind about all the environmental damage you caused at your job in a big tech company isn’t an act of kindness first of all, it is simply lame. If all those big companies out there would stop taking economic growth as the one and only success factor and would start acting more socially and environmentally responsible, then we wouldn’t need charities anymore.

    The best things in life are for free. It will take the effort of a lot of people to change the world to the better, but the most logic would be to start with yourself. Talk to your friends, family and colleagues and you might be able to change their way of thinking as well. Those are tiny little steps compared to huge charities like Room To Read, but it is a start. — Jana
    http://sustainability10.wordpress.com/category/jana-piest/

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