April 7, 2017Article

Stanford Social Innovation Review: Social Innovation Comes to Pennsylvania Avenue

by Monica Potts


Three weeks to the day after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the US presidential election, David Wilkinson stood before an anxious audience of leaders in philanthropy, technology, and social policy to address the dramatic turn that the nation’s politics had taken.

Then director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, Wilkinson was serving as a sort of master of ceremonies. The White House was cohosting a “Summit on Technology and Opportunity” at Stanford University with the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. If Hillary Clinton had won, the attendees, many of whom were there because of their ties to the White House and its initiatives, could have expected continuing executive support for their ideas on how to address the country’s most pressing social problems.

“I wasn’t planning on doing this,” Wilkinson began, “but why don’t I quickly start with the elephant in the room—no pun intended.”

Like the president he served, Wilkinson has a professorial air. Wearing glasses, a beard, and a skewed tie, he paced before two note boards, smiled affably, but spoke haltingly and with forced humor. As the head of a start-up that Obama himself created to try new and innovative ideas for domestic policy, he was facing the prospect of having those newly birthed initiatives smothered in the crib. President-elect Trump had promised to dismantle numerous agencies and change the entire way that government worked, largely in tune with the Republican-led Congress’ vision for shrinking the federal government.

“One thing that is good news is there was broad agreement at the presidential campaign level and at every level, among Republicans and Democrats, that inequality is a problem, that poverty is a problem,” Wilkinson said. “And what we also know is that there are vastly different visions of the solutions to those problems.”

Sitting in the audience waiting to participate on a subsequent panel was Michele Jolin, the person who first imagined the office that Wilkinson would eventually head. A social entrepreneur focusing on results-based solutions in the policy world, Jolin proposed in this magazine that government itself could harness and boost the ideas of social innovation and social entrepreneurship. In “Innovating the White House,”in the Spring 2008 issue, Jolin laid out a plan for the White House to establish an office and an investment fund to help promote new and better ideas for helping people through competitive grants.