The Tugboat and the Tanker: Ideas for the New Office of Social Innovation

If Hurricane Katrina taught us in the aid community anything, it was that when the perceived systems of support broke down, the local residents turned to organizations and community groups willing to step up -- whether they had the capacity of not. In many areas along the Gulf Coast it was not a disparate band of 'do-gooders' but a highly networked group of organizations that collaborated and tag-teamed on everything from housing reconstruction, volunteer coordination and social service support.

Implementing small, tangible, urban acupuncture projects led to the trust and support of the community which many of the big names were struggling to garner. In Biloxi, Mississippi we saw tens of thousands of individuals and dozens of groups working within an umbrella to bring back the heart of the city. We worked with the Hope Coordination Center, situated in the heart of East Biloxi, but there were a number of equally strong groups that rose out from the flood waters all across the coast. These centers became the anchors in the rebirth of the Gulf Coast and it was an honor to have worked with them.

The same thing happened after the 2004 South Asia Tsunami. While funds flowed from large scale aid groups and governments, what is referred to on the ground as 'the tankers,' it was the bootstrapped nimble organizations, 'the tugboats,' that partnered with local community groups and social entrepreneurs that filled the cracks in delivering aid and responding to local needs. In many areas these cracks were more like chasms and the tugboats ended up partnering and occasionally steering the tankers into communities that had been overlooked. This led to a faster moving pace in the reconstruction process and a shared learning between groups. In the case of community structures in Sri Lanka, we partnered with UN Habitat but made sure the structures built adhered to our standards of sustainability, energy efficiency and community ownership. Collectively we learned by doing.

To be a tugboat organization you must not only be able to turn on a dime (literally and financially) but collaborate with others to strengthen your mission. Also you must be willing to adapt to changing forms of communication and outreach. By integrating social media as a mechanism for fund raising and requests for help the tugboats are engaging a wider, more global audience as active civic participants. The final tugboat factor is scaling through 'open sourcing' your solutions. Using Creative Commons Licensing allows for easy distribution of lessons learned and design innovation in projects for social good. This transparency in communication led to adoption and adaptation of programs, methodologies and financing systems. As a result hundreds of replicated structures have emerged from this agile approach to post disaster management.

This week the White House has announced the formation of an Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, led by Sonal Shah. The former head of global development for is now charged with overseeing this office and its focus on embracing social innovation, finding out where it's coming from and figuring out ways to empower programs and organizations. To truly be a place of innovation the office should strive to seek out the tugboats, not only to support their work but find better ways to work, support and collaborate with the tankers (and that includes the government). Additionally I hope that all these new offices being created find efficient ways to work together. From involvement in the generation of green jobs through HUD, partnering with the Corporation for National and Community Service, supporting FEMA in recovery work, working with the Mayors Institute or collaborating with the National Endowment of the Arts on their annual Challenge America grants -- let's create an effective way of working so that we are working together and not creating duplicitous work

Finally, having worked in more than 30 countries I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the spirit of the American people shines brightest in times of trouble or great need and when the job is done, boy do we know how to party. Beyond empowering and supporting the office mandate I hope it also takes time to be apart of the quiet moments of celebration that happen in the trenches. In the last few months I saw hundreds of flood volunteers honored with free drinks in Fargo, North Dakota; witnessed dozens of college kids receive a standing ovation from locals at a crawfish shack in Waveland, Mississippi and saw impromptu soccer games between local kids and volunteers spring up after the wildfires in Southern California.

Congrats to the administration on forming what could be a great conduit for more effective and faster change but remember when it is time to celebrate let's go for less plaques and more parties.