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A Timeline of Social Innovation
By Guest Blogger / October 15, 2015 /   Loading Disqus...

By Dan Graham, Co-Founder of Build-A-Sign

If you Google “Social Innovation Capital of the World,” you (and your uncleared cookies) will be thrilled to find the first page is dedicated to tons of articles and references about Austin, and how this city is poised to become the next stop on the Social Innovation map.

Among those references is a piece I contributed to the Austin Business Journal touting to the tech savvy, socially conscious Austin entrepreneursphere that we are undeniably ready to become one of the first Social Innovation Cities in the country. We are poised to set an example and become a model of social innovation for cities everywhere.

In the article I discussed the need for startups and corporations to act on pre-existing opportunities to raise awareness of, and incite action around, social causes. Companies small or large should be incorporating scalable, sustainable models to ensure maximum social impact in their companies’ long-term plans.

What’s equally impressive is that the march toward scaleable and sustainable purpose-driven models is not only changing the for-profit space, but the not-for-profit space as well. Nonprofits are eagerly adopting business models that allow them to reach new levels of impact and scaleability that are not attainable through a traditional philanthropic approach.

I could easily assault you with an endless-scrolling list (and I will) of socially innovative organizations and initiatives that already exist within the walls of Austin, but let’s start with a timeline. We have been a socially innovative city for decades--growing with even greater rapidity as we continue to disrupt the tech, finance, and philanthropic industries.

Early 2000s

Let’s start with the mother of all green things--Whole Foods. In 2005, John Mackey created Whole Planet Foundation in order to create economic partnerships with the poor in those developing-world communities that supply Whole Foods Market stores with some of its products. Through innovative assistance for entrepreneurship--primarily direct microcredit loans--the Foundation sought to unleash the energy and creativity of every human being in order to create wealth and prosperity in emerging economies. The creation of Whole Planet Foundation embodied the belief in free market principles and empowerment management--continuing to impact the lives of thousands of women around the globe by providing them with access to financial capital.  

Mackey saw an opportunity to leverage his leadership in the organic food industry, a naturally socially innovative initiative, by creating a program that benefits folks right in his own backyard. Mackey’s latest movement is Conscious Capitalism, which he outlines in his book of the same name. Chapters and conferences have sprouted up all across the country and are changing the way corporations think about their business and social impact.

The Dell Social Innovation Challenge launched in 2007 with the goal of bringing visibility and public recognition to thousands of student social entrepreneurs worldwide who created tangible global impact on our planet. Among those contributing to the initial success of DSIC was Suzi Sosa--who has since transformed the international competition into Verb: an accelerator for massive entrepreneurship competitions that propel thousands of early-stage social entrepreneurs around the world by connecting them to the money and resources they need to grow.


Corporate Giving is a fun corner of the philanthropic arena. It’s a wonderful marriage between money-motivated strategies and all the feels of giving back to the community that built you up. Since launched the Giving Program in 2008, I’ve had the privilege of watching a ripple effect occur within dozens of for-profit Austin-based companies who are launching their own branches of giving within their organizations. Programs like Philanthropitch: a not-for-profit shark tank style pitch event gave away a total of $375,000 in 2015 at two sold out 400+ attended events and is now expanding it to Atlanta, CANville: an inter-company canned food drive competition which will donate over 250,000 meals in 2016 and The Startup Games: an inter-company Olympic style games with non-profits as the beneficiary now spreading to 8 cities nationwide. These all share a common denominator of maximizing outreach, and they emerged with corporate giving in mind.

And when I say “corporate giving” I don’t just mean monetary donations. While still very effective, corporate giving goes far beyond checks and balances. If you are a for-profit company in Austin, and you haven’t yet worked with my good friends from Digital Union, do yourself a favor and give them a call. Since 2012, the Digital Union duo has worked to discover, actualize, and sustain give-back initiatives for a countless number of Austin-based companies. Their wildly out-of-the-box way of approaching socially impactful strategies has helped for-profit companies effectively fuse the existing power of their business with the goodness of giving back.

And if for nothing else, just go grab a beer with them. I promise it’ll be worth it.

Now and beyond

What’s beautiful about all of this is that Austin Community Foundation is truly the glue that is going to bind all of these initiatives together--forming one giant philanthropic macaroni project.

Austin is so much more than boozy benefits and tourist attractions. There’s an entire ecosystem of socially conscious and innovative organizations that can do so much for our city. I’m talking multiple layers of socially innovative industries that house these organizations and programs that are moving mountains.

Still need more convincing?

Get your scrolling finger ready. Below are even more notable people, programs, and organizations with a serious case of social innovation gumption:

  • Mayor Steve Adler - pioneering Austin through innovative approaches to solving our largest problems
  • Mission Capital - Austin chapter of the Social Venture Partner Network
  • Impact Hub - Space and services for social enterprises
  • Innovation Zone: A geographic area near the new hospital district fostering innovation
  • ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) - Pursuing innovation solutions such as social impact bonds to solve homelessness and affordability
  • Enable Impact - A market place for social enterprise entrepreneurs and investors
  • Broomly and Yardease - Partnering with Easter Seals to end joblessness for our disabled citizens
  • Program Related Investments - New source of capital for social enterprises, allowing for debt and equity investments from foundations into for-profit enterprises
  • Medical Innovation Labs - bridging the gap between research, medicine and entrepreneurship
  • Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin – Building the medical school of the future.
  • UnLtd USA -Accelerator and funder for social enterprise startups
  • The Pay For Success (Social Impact Bonds) Taskforce – Putting government-issued bond money to work fueling solutions to social problems
  • Grameen America, Austin Chapter -  Bringing microcredit to Austin
  • Mobile Loaves and Fishes Community First Project - master-planned community providing affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas. 

Dan Graham co-founded in 2005 and oversees the company’s growth strategy and plays a key role in its philanthropic efforts and talent acquisition. Dan is a winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year ® 2013 Central Texas award. He is also a recipient of the Austin Business Journal's 2012 Best CEO Award, and was named 2012 Austinite of the Year and the Business and Entrepreneurship category winner by Austin Under 40, recognizing his success as a business owner as well as his commitment to philanthropic work. As a native Austinite, Dan personally gives back to the Austin community through participation on the Board of Directors for numerous philanthropic organizations including United Way for Greater Austin, Caritas of Austin, Greenlights and the Austin Chamber of Commerce among several others. He also acts as a mentor to aspiring young entrepreneurs working with Capital Factory and SKU. Dan earned undergraduate degrees in computer science and philosophy from The University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

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