New techniques do not always change conditions. In fact, new strategies always have the potential to reaffirm existing patterns and practices creating further entrenchment. It is important that a clear theory of change is communicated alongside new methods and tools so that users are continually engaging with ideas, troubling assumptions, and rethinking practices. 

Our theory of change emphasizes three core principles that help to further define the field of social innovation:

Organizations operate on frequencies that define the taken for granted ways of thinking and acting on a daily basis. Organizational frequencies determine what seems like effective movement towards achieving outcomes as well as what gets noted as creative or innovative amendments to those approaches. Frequencies include the language used to talk about problems and solutions, workspaces, and temporal rhythms of work. Social innovation interferes with these usual processes.

Deep thinking about the roots of social problems, as well as a critical examination of the response to issues, is required to conceptualize change. Deep thinking must include collection and analysis of data from a range of sources, thoughtful reflection and dialogue about what those data mean, and an actual change in practices as a result.

The impact of innovation work must be redefined to include more than reporting on the data that demonstrates outcomes. Impact includes the entire process of coming to understand the frequencies in which problems are conceptualized and addressed, the process of deep thinking, as well as the resulting actions.

This theoretical framework will guide the use and adaptation of the social innovation skills suggested, as well as the integration of other tools already available in the field.



You can often sense the habits and attitudes of people in a community by the way they interact with each other. Where and how do decisions get made? What does the space look like? How does that space support the community that forms? Who sits next to whom? Is there a hierarchy among staff or flat structures of engagement? How does that influence the flow of information about projects, goals, and deadlines? What sort of language is used to talk about needs, goals and desires? How is this translated into work – the every day tasks and the desired outcomes? What fields or disciplines do colleagues look to as a source of knowledge and inspiration?

Every workplace operates on these patterns of unspoken communication that we call vibes, or frequencies. Understanding a frequency means knowing the culture of an organization - the daily requirements and expectations of work, the power arrangements that define how various stakeholders interact, the ways that time and space are understood and used, and the representation of the work, of priorities in the field, and of the clients who are the recipients of services and resources. Naming the frequencies at play can help to challenge the assumptions that undergird how people think about the problems being addressed and where they see potential for change.

This toolkit highlights only three frequencies seen in NGOs – bureaucratic, creative, and innovative. Users may expand on these and identify other possible frequencies.


Each frequency can be useful and necessary for achieving goals; yet, individuals and organizations tend to rely mostly on bureaucratic approaches. Ultimately a frequency analysis can more effectively guide the development of creative and innovative mindsets.



Research, thought, and action are inseparable in social innovation. We call this deep thinking. Deep thinking means asking questions and using those questions to frame an area of investigation that will ultimately lead to actions. People must gather information or data to understand an area of concern and then use what they find to make decisions about what to do next. The emphasis is on making sure that action stems from posing authentic questions about what has been observed in real world contexts.

All of the skills highlighted in this toolkit include specific instruction to help users engage in research + thought + action as a part of implementing any social innovation method. This will also equip users to develop new social innovation methods.



Social sector organizations are made up of common components – people, environments, time, language, communication, and outcomes that characterize how people work together in organizations, how people define the problems and processes used to accomplish work, and ultimately the solutions that get supported as having “impact” to solve a problem or support a needy population.


Very often these components are seen as independent with no relation to each other. An innovation mindset views these components as connected. When one part is adjusted it creates movement in another. These shifts create opportunities that may have not been apparent before. This means that incremental change matters. Altering one component of social sector work through individual or organizational efforts can eventually lead to institutional and systemic impact that might truly propagate large scale societal changes for greater social good.


Too many innovations create new, unanticipated problems. One contributing factor to this phenomenon is the failure to see outcomes as one among many other components, such as, personnel practices, language use, and division of work space and time, that may have an impact. Instead, outcomes are typically viewed as the most important end result or the culmination of effective social sector work. The usual image of achieving impact is a unidirectional line: we begin with problem identification, follow with inputs, and finish with outcomes. 


Typical outcomes may include a policy change, an intervention or service, a workshop or a resource, all designed to solve a problem in some tangible, quantifiable way. The institutions that fund social mission organizations usually focus on evidence of these outcomes as if they are the only way to account for having an impact on social problems. However, most of us know that outcomes are not the only components that prove that good work has been done or that lives have been improved. An innovation mindset reconceptualizes impact beyond the mere attainment of outcomes. Social innovators must rethink the meaning and structure of all components of work, such as staff roles, how people are served, who provides services and what those relationships are like, the configuration of real and virtual workspace, how time and schedules are structured, language or terms used to describe work, how ideas are created and shared, external representations of those ideas, and the connections between each of these components.

An alternative image of impact is one of intersecting gears: when one gear moves faster or slower or in a different direction, all of the other parts are affected.  Multiple components operate in relation to each other and engage with multiple characteristics at all times. Thus, impact is no longer simply the end result of a linear, unidirectional process. Instead impact becomes a constant part of the usual ways of thinking, talking, and doing.