Social Innovation Incubator Profiles: Sylvia Dickinson, Co-Founder of Social Innovation Systems
In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Sylvia Dickinson found herself deeply unsettled by the inefficiencies of the aid effort. Issues of misappropriation, slow response times, and aid efficacy clouded the relationships between donors, nonprofits, and aid recipients. Sylvia envisioned a different system, one that emphasized transparency, accountability, and impact. With a co-founder, Todd Davidson, she sketched out a web-based software platform to enable such a model and created the company that would develop it: Social Innovation Systems.
The company’s software will enable organizations to self-manage the process of impact investing, from identifying potential recipients to making investments and managing repayment. Unlike grants, impact investments entail a small return to the investor—typically foundations, nonprofits, governments, or financial institutions—but are also targeted at organizations working to solve pressing social or environmental problems.
Developing a product to address the needs of an emerging (and sometimes poorly understood) market presents a unique set of challenges. Sylvia describes the difficulties:
There are no like products, there is no commonly known vocabulary and you can’t follow the path taken by others. You have to strike out on your own, search far and wide for even a few like-minded believers, make up language, educate and convince others and resist relentless pressure to simplify, narrow, refine and stay small. It can be exhausting! Visions for global change aren’t small, they’re not easy to understand and can’t be captured in a seven-slide PowerPoint. They disrupt the status quo, transcend market segments, and frankly—they make people uncomfortable. It’s a challenging and highly rewarding path.
Social Innovation Systems is already well along that path. Product designs are complete, several major organizations involved in impact investing have contributed to planning and the company is now seeking funding for software development and testing. As the field of impact investing takes shape, Sylvia plans to complement it with “a new, global financial technical infrastructure that supports large-scale social change.” No small matter, but then again, neither are the challenges faced by global society and the need for innovative funding mechanisms to help solve those challenges.
Social Innovation Systems: