A Conversation with Eric Nee

More than 50 years after President Johnson began the “War on Poverty” the scourges of poverty and inequality rage on. Each day, and in a range of ways, IS members fight back. Claire Wellington spoke with Eric Nee, managing editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, about SSIR’s own particular role.

The Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) “informs and inspires millions of social change leaders from around the world and from all sectors of society – nonprofits, business, and government.” Since 2003, SSIR has been a platform for sharing new ideas, cogent analysis, and practical approaches to the myriad problems addressed by nonprofits and social entrepreneurs in this country and around the world. As we discussed the enduring and epic problem of poverty, Eric’s reasoned approach and journalist’s acumen shone through. He observed that a large problem like poverty is in truth an amalgam of many smaller ones, themselves more readily susceptible to solution. While not on the front lines of this fight, he and the SSIR team offer a context within which to parse the challenge, slicing it into more manageable, constituent pieces, and seeking out opportunities to engage the discussion around those topics. By viewing poverty as a theme that underlies and informs any number of topics reflected in its pages, there is no assertion on Eric’s part that the vehicle is the solution. Rather, the vehicle and its contents are designed to help the audience coalesce around the issue, think about and debate it, and, hopefully, advance the conversation, increasing the chances for informed action and greater success.

It certainly is the case for a vehicle such as SSIR that communicating about solutions — perhaps tried and true, perhaps just possibilities – is vital to making progress. As Eric observed, to address truly big problems with even some modicum of success, it takes creative thinking, opportunities for shared learning, and the collaboration of individuals and organizations from across all sectors. An intentionally cross-sector approach to the issues they choose to address is core to SSIR’s philosophy, as is the importance of leaders in our sector, as well as those in the government and business sectors, to be able to learn from one another. The media, and particularly an outlet like SSIR, are a key contributor in that regard, and Eric and his team are focused in a laser-like way on providing a platform for solutions-oriented thinkers and actors, as well as those who shine a light on problems in search of a solution. Importantly, Eric noted that in the 21st century, leadership is demonstrated in many different ways. SSIR is highly attuned to the need to engage next generation audiences, many of whom have a deep commitment to making a difference and improving society.

During our conversation Eric graciously shared his thinking about some of the issues SSIR has tackled over the years from the applicability to nonprofits of design thinking principles utilized in the private sector, to the sharing of microfinance lessons learned in South Asia. While topics including bold leadership and sparking nonprofit innovation may not be viewed as the keys to eliminating poverty, per se, the idea of how to be better at what we do really does matter. Across the range of issues SSIR takes on, Eric described the imperative to serve as a bridge: between sectors, between the academy and practice, or between those who have a shared interest and a commitment to solving a problem. As a communications vehicle, SSIR plays an integral role in ensuring that boundaries, either real or imagined, are not impediments to the exchange of information and continuous learning. According to Eric, SSIR takes the “long view” in addressing issues such as poverty, and is highly intentional in determining which articles will most effectively examine what’s working and what’s not working, and that bring to the fore new ideas and approaches.

As a true 21st century media outlet, SSIR does not limit the scope of its efforts to print. Its website, online articles, podcasts, conferences, and webinars are all vehicles for advancing and testing ideas. Its messages are also shared through social media, with more than a 100,000 followers on Twitter, as well as on Facebook.

The bottom line: as playwright and Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw once said: “[t]he single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” It’s a pretty good bet that SSIR, through its efforts to inform, engage, and inspire, is focused on ensuring that there is real communication, and not just the illusion of its occurrence.

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