'When Bees Meet Trees': scaling social innovation through existing organisations - guest post - RSA

'When Bees Meet Trees': scaling social innovation through existing organisations - guest post

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  • Fellowship
  • Social innovation

Clore Social Leadership Fellows Owen Jarvis and Ruth Marvel call for established charities, housing associations and NGOs to radically rethink their roles and business models and “open-up” to emerging social innovations in order to be successful in tackling social issues.

Sharath Jeevan is a serial social entrepreneur working to improve education in the UK and overseas. His current venture, incubated by UK charity ARK is called STIR. It aims to improve India’s state provided education by Owen Jarvishelping teachers in schools to share their best ideas and methods from the classroom with other teachers, countrywide. By doing so and sharing 100s if not 1000s of these inspirations, they will over time radically raise the bar on teaching standards nationally.

STIR works with many of the large charitable foundations who sponsor and run chains of schools in India. By acting as a broker between individual teachers and these foundations, the charity has the means by which to quickly roll out many of the proven classroom ideas quickly and effectively nationwide.

Larger social sector organisations are largely disconnected from the world of social innovation and overlooked by funders and policy makers.

Illustration 3STIR is a good example of the “bees and trees” metaphor as to how social change happens. “Bees” are small companies, groups or individuals who are dynamic and creative. “Trees”, are large organisations and governments, weak at innovation but are robust and usually good at delivering at scale. By working together new solutions to social problems can find roots to growth and scale.

The “bees and trees” metaphor offers the social sector the significant potential to source and scale innovation effectively. However, from our own experience of running large charities and social enterprises, we felt that examples such as STIR were relatively rare.

Ruth Marvel and I set out, as part of our Clore Social Fellowship, over the last nine months to explore why this doesn’t happen and how it could. We held interviews and workshops with almost 50 social innovators, investors, incubator programmes and top managers in large charities, housing associations and NGOs.

It became apparent that, with some exceptions, larger social sector organisations are largely disconnected from the world of social innovation and overlooked by funders and policy makers. And social innovators who see the potential for partnerships with charities and housing associations often found approaches blocked, ignored or delayed in endless meetings.

The social sector can take inspiration from the thriving 18th century London coffee houses and establish 21st century venues and events where people from all walks of life are able to meet and discuss ideas and challenges, laying foundations for formal partnerships.Illustration 1

The case for open innovation is compelling for survival, impact and relevance. With budget cuts, aging populations, fast-moving tech changes and high public expectations on social impact; large charities, housing associations and NGOs simply don’t have sufficient internal staffing to come up with all the answers themselves.

In the private sector it’s a hot-topic. Corporate giants Proctor and Gamble “open-out” beyond their research and development teams to the 1.5m people in its supply chains and networks to and now generate a third of their new products externally. Tech companies like Google are well known for searching out and acquiring emerging talent and companies.

So, if the private sector can attract collaborators for snacks, apps and household items, surely there must be huge potential in the social sector generating interest in tackling the major social issues?

Social innovation is more than business models – and can achieve impact through changes in behaviour and attitudes. Large social sector organisations do have assets and resources to invest in start-ups, but it is their networks, brand, connections and insights that also offer significant basis for supporting growth.

Illustration 2There are a number of roles large social organisations can play. We describe them as “scale partners”, “institutional entrepreneurship” and “social innovation brokerage”. We want organisations to work at a systemic level, as “collective impact networks” rather than just as competitors. There are real-world examples of organisations playing these roles effectively already, from Mencap to UNICEF, Big Lottery and Catch-22.

In truth of course, established organisations aren’t the only route to scale for emerging ideas and solutions but can’t be ignored by funders and new kids on the block. Social innovations are delicate and care is needed not to clumsily crush their essence as we move to widespread adoption.

Organisations such as RSA and NESTA are ideally placed to research social issues, issue challenges, convene “bees” and “trees” and influence widespread adoption. For social leaders these aren’t quick fixes but offer a brave and ultimately long-term direction for the social sector.


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Find out more about Owen on the Clore Social Leadership website or follow him on twitter.

RSA partner The Clore Social Leadership Programme develops leaders in the social sector so that they can transform their communities, organisations and the world around them.

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  • Hi
    Another coincidence for me too! I read "When Bees Meet Trees" last weekend and found it really thought provoking. In the meantime I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and have just read a section I think particularly pertinent to what you have said and some of my own feelings about it.

    While I would love to think that large organisations would all have the scope to occupy the roles described, in reality I feel there are structural issues that, certainly without significant changes internally which could be a long term goal, could limit the scope for these organisations to support the "bees". The section of the book I've just read speaks of the gulf between those organisations willing to be "Innovators" and "Early Adopters" and "Early Majority" - the large organisations that can mainstream an idea. To close the gap Gladwell identifies the need for "translators" who I believe mirror the role of the "intrapreneurs" that you identify.

    I think this gulf was also reflected in a recent, fascinating RSA Event that I attended "Are Service Users the Key to System Change" where I left with the distinct impression that Dame Clare Tickell and Chris Wright often felt restricted by the structures of their large organisations in a way that I think would hamper their practical support to innovators, much as they endorse and recognise the value of these new approaches.

    I do however, think that you identified a key role that even these organisations can play in terms of using their status and recognition to advocate for social projects and also to act, even in a fairly arms length way as incubators - perhaps providing mentoring opportunities and a space for shared learning between innovators approaching their objectives.

  • Another thought, I'd love to hear about anyone using Lynda Gratton's 'Hot spots' approach to nourishing effective, creative collaborations. Its use of social network analysis (SNA) always made it seem a very RSA-ish approach...
    Have you come across it, Owen?

  • Amazing! and very interesting observation, this will really connect particularly with the design community working with public and social services, particularly after speaking with Lauren at Snook today in Glasgow. The key challenge now is how we make these connections happen and to design together a process and means of doing it - how do you build trust and long-term commitment into these types of relationships...

  • Hi Owen,

    Amazing synchronicity that on the day I see your wonderful 'Bees and Trees' metaphor, I also spotted a (related?) challenging idea from Art Kleiner about how to enable the 'Core group' and the creatives to work together, so that organisations can truly change the world.

    Here's the blog I spotted about it:


    And the key point:

    "Here’s a hypothesis I’d like to see tested by some management researcher sometime. When Core Group people and creative people talk easily together, the oganisation is innovative.
    When they don’t, it is not. Many highly creative people are quite happy outside the Core Group, but they are keenly aware of whether the Core Group is listening to them. Moreover, the wider the base of creativity to which the Core Group pays attention, the more overall creativity the organization can muster.
    Finally, a Core Group that truly understands creativity will demonstrate it by bringing creative people together across boundaries to solve common problems.
    When that happens, creative people truly can change the world. [Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success by Art Kleiner, pp. 101]

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

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