An in-depth interview with Eric Nee, managing editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review

March 11, 2011

by Rahim Kahani, Huffington Post

In advance of the 2011 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, I interviewed Eric Nee, Managing Editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, about the evolution of the publication, the state and promise of social innovation today, how Stanford University thinks about these issues, gaps in sector-wide research, and more.

Below is an excerpt of the discussion, while the full transcript can be found here.

Rahim Kanani: Founded in 2003, the Stanford Social Innovation Review has become a go-to journal for those of us in the world of social innovation, social entrepreneurship, and social change. How would you characterize the evolution of the journal and the basis of its success?

Eric Nee: When Stanford Social Innovation Review first started, many people asked, What is social innovation? Today we don’t get that question very often. Social innovation has become (almost) a household word. Two cite just two examples. President Obama launched the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and Hewlett-Packard Co., the world’s largest computer firm, now has an Office of Global Social Innovation. We can’t take full credit for popularizing the term social innovation, but we are certainly blessed to ride its growing wave of popularity.

In the early years Stanford Social Innovation Review focused on nonprofits and nonprofit management. While that is still an important part of what we write about, we have broadened our focus to provide a more comprehensive view of social innovation, one that includes the role that for-profit businesses and government play in social change, with particular focus on cross-sector partnerships. That is one of the things that make Stanford Social Innovation Review different than most other publications. Most publications focus on one sector — Nonprofit Quarterly focuses on nonprofits, Harvard Business Review focuses on for-profits, and Foreign Policy focuses on government. Stanford Social Innovation Review, by contrast, covers the interplay of all three sectors. And increasingly, that interplay is where the action is.

The other thing that has changed since we launched Stanford Social Innovation Review eight years ago is the publishing industry. It is no longer possible to survive financially by simply publishing a magazine. To attract readers and bring in enough money, media organizations have to engage people in a variety of mediums. So that is what we have done. In addition to our quarterly magazine (which has a circulation of about 12,000), we now have a website that attracts about 30,000 unique visitors a month, webinars that attract between 200 and 600 paying attendees, and a couple of annual conferences. We aren’t yet a financially self-sustaining social enterprise, but we are getting close.

Rahim Kanani: How would you characterize the sector of social innovation today, and what are the most promising possibilities as you look ahead?

Eric Nee: The most promising thing I see is the enthusiasm that so many young people have for social innovation. One of the most popular recruiters at top universities today is Teach for America. Last October I attended the Net Impact conference at the University of Michigan where there were more than 2,000 business students from across the United States who were all interested in creating sustainable businesses. And here at Stanford many of the brightest students want to work at a nonprofit or start a social venture. That is a lot to be hopeful about.

Rahim Kanani: How does Stanford in particular integrate the concept of social innovation into its learning, thinking, and teaching?

Eric Nee: We are fortunate to be based at Stanford University. One couldn’t ask for a better location from which to view the world of social innovation. First, it’s located in Silicon Valley where there is a strong culture of entrepreneurship, risk-taking, innovation, and problem solving. Almost every week, people create new nonprofit and for-profit organizations to tackle unmet needs. Google, Kiva, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), Twitter, and GreatNonprofits are just a few of the many innovative Silicon Valley organizations that are trying to change the world for the better.

One thing that people don’t realize is that Silicon Valley is also home to many large and innovative foundations — such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Skoll Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, and Omidyar Network. The culture of philanthropy is well entrenched in the area.

And of course, being at Stanford is a big plus. Not only is it a top-ranked university with some of the best professors and research institutions in the world, but it also has attributes that lend themselves to fostering social innovation. The core of the university’s founding principles was, in the words of cofounder Jane Stanford, “a desire to render the greatest possible service to mankind.” Stanford’s current president John Hennessy has taken this idea to heart. He has focused a great deal of Stanford’s talent and financial resources on tackling global problems in health, the environment, and international relations. To achieve this he has encouraged cross-disciplinary research and thinking and the creation of very large new centers where that work takes place, such as Bio-X, Woods Institute for the Environment, and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Because of this, Stanford has spawned many social entrepreneurs. One of the most popular courses on campus is “Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability,” a two-quarter class at the Institute of Design where students learn how to use design and technology to solve social problems. Out of that class have come several successful for-profit and nonprofit organizations, including d.light design (which makes affordable solar powered lights) and Embrace (which makes low-cost infant warmers)…more.

Continue reading the transcript

This interview is part of an in-depth series in advance of the 2011 Skoll World Forum held later this month in Oxford, England. This series includes discussions with Richard Boly, Director of the Office of eDiplomacy at the U.S. State Department, John Marks, Founder and President for Search for Common Ground, Christopher Davis, International Campaigns Director for the Body Shop International, and many more. For more information, please visit World Affairs Commentary.