Graduate Students Use Social Innovation to Address Complex Social Issues

USC Sol Price School of Public Policy


Some social problems, such as homelessness and closing the educational achievement gap, are so entrenched and complex that traditional policy levers have failed to catalyze lasting social change. For these grand challenges, social change agents must identify new approaches and solutions, such as new financing models or new organizational forms.

Students in the graduate-level social innovation course, taught by Price Center Director Gary Painter this past spring, took on this challenge, developing social innovation approaches to solving some of society’s most pressing and complex social issues. Topics included criminal justice reform, gun control, and sexual assault on campus, among others. The class is part of a growing curriculum in social innovation within the Price School; the school also offers a graduate level certificate in social innovation and the Price Center launched an executive education course in social innovation last year.

What is Social Innovation?

Because the field represents an emerging area of both scholarship and practice, educating students on the core pillars of social innovation is central to the mission of the USC Price Center for Social Innovation.

The social innovation process is an iterative, non-linear approach to social problem solving, emphasizing rapid learning and refinement throughout the process. Authentic, sustained community participation is central to this work, and leads every stage of the social innovation process. The process begins with community stakeholders collectively identifying the problem at hand and co-designing potential strategies to address it. Stakeholders then pilot emergent ideas, to test what works in regard to enrollment strategies, financing mechanisms, and other performance metrics. If successful, pilots might be scaled to a larger intervention that would include a rigorous evaluation component. The ultimate goal of the process is to diffuse successful practices into existing policies, resulting in long-term systems change. Embracing risk, uncertainty, and failure is critical to the success of this process as well.

“The social innovation process is analogous to the research and design process in the private sector,” said Painter. “The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t test just one drug at a time. It tests multiple drugs and allows sufficient room for experimentation and possibly even failure. The social innovation process allows us to apply a similar framework to social problem solving.”


On the social innovation process:

“At the Price Center, we are teaching students to understand that social innovation is a process by which stakeholders co-design, pilot, scale, and diffuse new or improved solutions to solve large-scale social problems. Social innovation is often viewed as a product or outcome, but I wanted to challenge our students to apply the process of social innovation to solve our grand challenges of the day.”



A New Approach to Criminal Justice Reform

Doctoral students Hilary Olson and Megan Goulding proposed a social innovation process that would include a Social Impact Bond (SIB) to launch a community bail fund (CBF) in Los Angeles. CBFs allow philanthropy or private funders to pay bail for individuals who lack sufficient funds and would otherwise have to remain in jail. The potential impact of community bail funds is significant, as there are nearly 500,000 individuals incarcerated in the US each day. The majority of these defendants have not been convicted of crimes but are awaiting their trials because they are unable to afford bail. The consequences of pretrial incarceration are severe, as pretrial detention increases a defendant’s likelihood of conviction and of receiving a jail sentence, especially for low-income, indigent defendants. In addition, incarceration has been shown to have many personal consequences, such as increased risks of losing jobs, housing, or custody of children, as well as physical and psychological harm.

To solve this problem, Olson and Goulding developed a social innovation plan to engage community stakeholders in a process to develop a community bail fund for Los Angeles County, piloting the concept through a social impact bond. A social impact bond is a tool for financing a social services contract through up-front private investment. The investment is returned, in addition to potential earned interest, only if predetermined program outcomes are met.


On valuable learning experiences:

“I have been doing research on both social impact bonds and community bail funds for separate projects, and this assignment allowed me to imagine how these two social finance tools might be combined to address one core social issue. It further prompted me to think more critically about how to engage with and theoretically frame the social innovation process, which is incredibly valuable, as my dissertation will likely focus on how to design and evaluate social finance strategies in a variety of contexts.”



Collective Impact to End Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Masters students Marianna Jordan and Joelle Montier engaged with the social innovation process through proposing the use of a Collective Impact Framework to decrease sexual assault on college campuses. This pressing issue, which universities nationwide are struggling to properly address, persists in part due to a lack of accurate statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault. This stems from inconsistent definitions of sexual assault, underreporting and/or lack of reporting, existing incentives for universities to underreport, and ongoing cultural challenges that society as a whole must examine.

To design appropriate interventions to solve this problem, Jordan and Montier proposed combining Collective Impact methodology with evidence-based prevention strategies to decrease sexual assault. Collective impact initiatives consist of five characteristics that create the groundwork for lasting social change. These characteristics include: 1) a common agenda; 2) shared measurement systems; 3) mutually reinforcing activities; 4) continuous communication, and 5) a backbone support organization. The power of this framework lies in its ability to organize a variety of key stakeholders and partner organizations into a cohesive group with a well-articulated vision, which supports effective coordination of activities, data collection, and policy mobilization.

“A collective impact framework can help us learn how to engage community voices, institutional leadership, and existing research to problem solve for an entrenched and complex issue like sexual assault” said Jordan. “I’m grateful that this class expanded my thinking on the tools and processes that we can utilize to create systemic change.”