Social impact, poverty and the cat on the ring road

Township near Cape Town, South AfricaThe route on social impact innovation began with the vision of very few, now several years ago, when it seemed only an abstract and even unrealistic formula.

Today, instead, it seems that everyone has become a social innovator: banks, companies, philanthropists. As if a fashion had broken out that nobody wants to stay out of. Some mistrust, therefore, is inevitable and, indeed, a duty. Especially when it turns out that to represent the flag of social impact innovation in Italy are often the same ones that have always occupied privileged positions and that the social, in their life, has been mostly sitting comfortably in the living room.

Exactly as intuited and ironically represented in the film “Come un gatto in tangenziale”, in particular in the scene in which Paola Cortellesi, who “was” the social, finds herself the only one with the clogs, an out-of-place guest of courteous but slightly snob characters, who, strictly barefoot, discuss the greatest systems sitting in front of the sea in Capalbio.

On the other hand, however, the sometimes hostile attitude shown on social impacts by some voluntary associations, in which charismatic founders and simple volunteers tense up hearing about finance, cannot be justified. As if the money were a dirty thing and as if, then, it was not money that that they themselves accept in donation for the worthy activities carried out.

Social impact innovation, on the other hand, is a theme that calls everyone to the comparison, because it can mark a revolution in the approach to social and economic policies, to be considered not separately, but an integral part of the others. A revolution necessary in the face of the progressive lack of available resources, on the one hand, and the exponential growth of the number of poor, on the other.

To make things clear, it must be said, first of all, that today in Italy we are trying to make social innovation, but not innovation with a social impact. And that word – impact – really makes the difference. The borders of poverty, in fact, as well as social exclusion and the degradation of the suburbs, are so extensive, today, that it is no longer enough to intervene on the single emergency.

Rather, we need to think and experiment with interventions that, in tackling poverty, for example, create opportunities for wealth with new jobs, revitalize abandoned public buildings, bring back activities and people to degraded and insecure neighborhoods.

This is the difference that the word “impact” can make: expanding the effects of a social project, so that they touch not only a category of citizens and discomfort, but bring direct and indirect benefits to the whole community.

These are, as is evident, projects, if not difficult, certainly complex both because they require years, and because they involve many subjects: public institutions, the private non-profit, the private profit, the financial institution, the evaluator.

It is worthwhile, however, to try, if you do not want to remain closed within the increasingly restricted boundaries of donations, which are important, but do not take you very far: public or private money that is barely enough to restructure yet another roadman’s house, open its doors with smiling volunteers, tear up some newspaper headlines, and then, after a few years, find itself witnessing the new decline of the building due to lack of new resources.

In order for this not to happen, it is not enough just to talk about it. Indeed it has become decidedly intolerable the uncoordinated and self-referential swarm of events, newspaper articles, courses and schools, which have invaded the theme of social impact and the fight against poverty.

It is evident, in fact, the neckline between those who continue to organize events and those who struggle daily with yet another desperate knocking on the door: the first who think they can teach the latter and vice versa. While it is clear that both contributions are essential as long as they learn to intertwine.

Too many have become those who only offer to model innovative projects without wanting to be part of it: in a few years, perhaps, it will be possible, but not now. Now we are still in the ABC. We are at the stage where projects must be built together, those who theorize and those who put into practice. You cannot sit at a desk to evaluate initiatives that are done in the field.

After, only afterwards, the directions will stand out, but now is the time when everyone should get their hands dirty, starting from local projects, strongly rooted in the territories, so that the innovativeness of the impact approach enters the culture and everyday life of all. The national dimension of the projects will also come later. After that small experimentation that must be done with the intention of making it repeatable and, then, carried on a national scale.

In Tuscany we are trying to do it, with effort and determination, thanks also to the Third Sector Reform: Tuscany Region, Caritas, Ethical Foundation, Confindustria, a bank and now also Fondazione Italiana Sociale.

It took two years of work just to get everyone together around the same table, on the same project, to create a local promoter committee and, above all, to agree on the desire to innovate the way of doing social, turning into an opportunity of economic development the regeneration of a disused regional property. We are not aiming for the umpteenth best practice, but for a positive contamination in the country.