Innovation may not be the first thing that comes to mind when talking about a 73-year-old organization like non-profit CARE. Operating in 93 countries, the organization impacts the lives of 60 million people each year by identifying the greatest challenges, like poverty and hunger, of the most marginalized people in a certain region and finding the best way to positively impact their lives.
That’s where Chief Innovation Officer Dar Vanderbeck steps in. In her role, she helps the organization step away from a typical non-profit model and create sustainable, innovative business models to continue to operating.
“It’s important to ground the work of innovation in our incredible history and responsibility,” says Vanderbeck. “We are not a fly-in/fly-out organization — our strength is defined by the fact we have shown up and stood shoulder to shoulder with people across the world on the front lines of social justice for decades and decades. We don’t always get it right of course, but I do think it’s our distinctive offering.”
A former startup co-founder, Vanderbeck helped grow a company during its early stages before leaving four years ago. Previously, she was also the managing director of Teach For America’s Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship team, where she launched several projects to help 40,000+ teachers solve educational equity issues.
Vanderbeck and her team are preparing to launch CARE’s Atlanta Global Innovation Hub this fall and are currently looking to partner with local organizations who are mission-aligned. The space will aim to bring together various voices in civil society, government, academia, and entrepreneurs to discuss solutions to current social injustices.
Here, Vanderbeck shares more about how she surveyed CARE’s innovation status on her first day on the job and her thoughts on Atlanta’s growing social enterprise sector.
What does your role as Chief Innovation Officer entail?
Our team’s role is to transform CARE to be able to continue to show up in the most impactful way. That means we cannot rely on the vestiges of global non-profit models. We need to start with a deep, contextual understanding of the problems we seek to solve and then figure out what resources, talent, community we need to make our best shot at solving those problems.
We also ensure everyone at CARE — over 10,000 staff members world wide — has the skills, resources and support to drive innovation. We take an open innovation approach here versus a skunkworks model.
As a team, we also look at innovating business models. For example, we are starting CARE Enterprises, a $50 million impact investment fund creating dignified work opportunities in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia. Our aim is to deliver strategic advisory services that influence and transform systems that have a disproportionate impact on poverty and injustice. Business model innovation is particularly important as we ask what is needed to achieve our mission in various contexts. For example, in Sri Lanka 20 years ago when the war was raging, that required a very different operating model than it does now, as an important emerging economy with booming investments in the hospitality and retail sectors.
When you started at CARE, how did you survey their current status as innovators and how did you tap into the talent to increase that innovation?
I am a devotee, so to speak, of Marshall Ganz and his work on community organizing as a way to transform how power operates. That means we approached this by creating the spaces for people to raise a hand, to step into leadership. Too frequently, big organizations rely on the usual suspects. They are reliable first movers. But this practice is often excluding and leaves so much learning on the table when you return to the same group of people for every big change.
At CARE, our first foray in this was launching the Scale X Design Accelerator which seeks to build the bridge between innovation and impact. Meaning, far too many incredible projects die on the vine when their traditional funding runs out. How might we create a bridge for them to actually be sustainable? We anticipated some 30 applications in year one, but got 74 from over 40 countries. This was a huge sign that we at CARE are filled with innovators worldwide, we just need to build the infrastructure to identify and support them in their journey to drive innovation in their context.
In your opinion, how can technology inform social justice and help grow the impact in movement building?
Technology will not save us, it will accelerate the core issues humanity is grappling with — issues of xenophobia, of fear, of belonging, of worthiness and so on. But — importantly — technology is surfacing those issues in a clear and profound way. And I think we are being asked, as a global community, to rise to the challenge of evolving in a new way.
For example, there is much to be said about Facebook but the frequently-cited idea of it creating an echo chamber is interesting. Now, I need to grapple with difference of opinion in a new way. And difference is isolating and scary, when you look at it through one lens. Do I unfriend them? Do I go to coffee with them to try and understand? I don’t know the answers, but I think it’s a good example of how technology is challenging our ideas of identity and belonging.
Atlanta has seen a rise in social enterprises, including an increase in social impact investing. What are your hopes for how technology will influence this sector?
My ultimate hope is that we build a unique collective voice as Atlanta rooted in our history and our DNA. I don’t think there’s anything interesting about replicating a Silicon Valley. How do we lift up social enterprises that bring a very sharp and sophisticated understanding of power and rights? How do we hold businesses accountable to the “too busy to hate” narrative that Atlanta likes to espouse of itself? What is a meaningful iteration of that narrative in 2018? That is the part I think is exciting. I am hoping CARE can play more intentionally in this conversation and be a bridge for a truly global community of cross-sectoral actors who are all working away, in their corner of the world, for a more just world.
All photos courtesy of CARE