“Passionate Amateurs” a Primary Source of Social Innovation

Care is an expression of love – parental, familial, neighbourly.  The primary source of care provided to our children, those with chronic disease, mental illness, or disability and those who are sick or ageing, comes from family, friends, neighbours, co-workers and personal networks. 

Most breakthroughs in care originate from the challenges we face nourishing, comforting, tending, witnessing, alleviating, mediating, surmounting, advocating.  We are compelled to innovate because we want the best for those we love, because we want to decrease suffering and hardship, because we want to nurture a good life and a good death.  We are inspired to a higher standard of creativity and ingenuity by the daily challenges we face in taking care of each other.

I wonder what you think of the term 'passionate amateur'.  Amateur as in doing something for the love of it.  Passionate as inspired by love, devotion, mortality, loss, triumph and tragedy to the highest standard.   Notable examples of passionate amateurs are the folks behind La Leche League, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Slow Food Movement and Permaculture.

Alas, passionate amateurs are often overlooked and neglected as generators of social innovation.  Even though many of their social inventions eventually migrate over to  businesses, non profits and governments. 

Passionate amateurs are an important source of innovation because:

  • the impossible is unacceptable
  • they innovate from the heart, with the heart
  • they are on the front lines living with challenges, years and sometimes decades before they seep into the consciousness of systems and institutions
  • their creativity accumulates over time – the perfect conditions for repeated experimentation leading to breakthroughs
  • their incentive for groundbreaking, disruptive innovations comes from what they experience and what they witness.  Incremental changes often won't do for friends and loved ones 
  • their resources are limited so they know how to stretch a dollar, and still be innovative
  • their care is voluntary and freely given – their commitment is beyond the boundaries of job descriptions, office hours, strategic plans, funding, fashion, business and political priorities
  • they are both consumers and producers  – they know the system inside out; what works and what doesn't and how to realize the untapped potential of what you may already be offering.

If you were a funder, government or service provider facing tough decisions in a time of decreasing revenues and increasing demands wouldn't you want passionate amateurs on your side? 

Wouldn't you want to ensure you are not doing anything that jeopardizes their innovation?

Wouldn't you want to enhance passionate amateurs' capacity to care, to innovate, to inspire, to spread proven solutions?

Passionate amateurs are already a critical source of innovations in care.  With open source and smart networks I predict they will become an even more important source.

In subsequent posts I will list practical social inventions and innovations arising from passionate amateurs.  They're everywhere!

Related Posts:

Two Views of Social Innovation

Social Innovation – Doing More With More

Neglected Sources of Innovation: Individuals and Families

Ten Environmental Innovations

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One Comment

  1. Jason Mogus

    Al I think this is brilliant. In the digital world we see many examples of passionate volunteers (amateurs basically) self organizing to make real things happen, things that work like open source software and Wikipedia. Some of the most innovative and effective new non profits I know like Avaaz and 350.org or even the Obama 2008 campaign rely on engaged supporters to execute their campaigns.
    Most other NGOs struggle with the same issues – overworked, under-resourced, tired. Not an easy place to innovate from. Connecting these dots and engaging the fresh minds and energy of volunteers – collaborating with needed experts – I think is key to fixing some of the nasty challenges that have been afflicting the entire social change sector for a generation. Bravo for putting some language to this.

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