HSEs innovate amid resource constraints, adapting strategies during pandemics. Collaboration crucial for efficiency, resilience in humanitarian sector.
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Restrict or release? How did COVID-19 affect social innovations in humanitarian settings?

HSEs innovate amid resource constraints, adapting strategies during pandemics. Collaboration is crucial for efficiency and resilience in the humanitarian sector.

The article titled “Resource Scarcity and Humanitarian Social Innovation: Observations from Hunger Relief in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic” delves into the strategies and innovations employed by humanitarian social enterprises (HSEs) in the US to address hunger relief amidst the challenges posed by limited resources, especially amidst the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Employing a longitudinal case study method, this research examines how the innovation capabilities of HSEs vary between regular conditions and during exceptional events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. This approach involved studying the same phenomenon at various time intervals, providing both pre-pandemic and pandemic-era perspectives.

In times of scarcity or abundance, HSEs can drive significant social innovations by tailoring their strategies to their resource environments, illustrating the potential for resilience and impact in the humanitarian sector.

Iana Shaheen

Social innovations and humanitarian relief

Social innovations, as defined by Pol and Ville (2009), are novel approaches designed to address unmet social needs. It plays a vital role in enabling HSEs to achieve their missions efficiently. For instance, an HSE in Florida forged innovative partnerships with local farmers and restaurants, helping to procure fresh produce that would otherwise be wasted due to disruptions in the supply chain.

Overall, the findings indicate noticeable disparities in innovation approaches between entities operating in resource-constrained versus resource-rich environments. In contexts of scarcity, HSEs must adopt inventive measures by harnessing collaborative capabilities. This entails establishing alliances and partnerships with other organizations to optimize the utilization of shared resources. Conversely, in resource-abundant settings, HSEs can concentrate on assimilating and implementing external knowledge, utilizing the influx of information and resources to propel innovation. Nevertheless, these strategies exhibit variability between typical conditions and the extraordinary circumstances witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restrict or release? How did COVID-19 affect social innovations in humanitarian settings?
Credit. Midjourney

Social innovation in regular times: Differentiating between resource availability

The study emphasizes the significant role of the operating context in shaping the approach adopted by HSEs towards social innovation. In conventional operational settings, HSEs situated in resource-constrained environments were observed to rely heavily on collaborative capabilities. This entailed cultivating relationships with diverse stakeholders, such as farmers and distribution centers, to establish novel avenues for resource optimization and the efficient distribution of perishable goods.

A compelling instance of social innovation is exemplified by one HSE, where, under the leadership of its president, the organization successfully initiated a vegetable garden bed project through collaborative efforts. This endeavor entailed active involvement from local residents and garnered support from a landscaping company. Beyond providing a sustainable food source, this innovation fostered community engagement and partnership, serving as a testament to innovative approaches to addressing food scarcity while promoting local involvement.

In contrast, HSEs in resource-abundant settings leaned on assimilating and applying external knowledge, such as market research and insights from partner organizations, to cultivate innovative solutions. An example of social innovation within HSEs involves their engagement with a national hunger relief organization’s research initiatives. These HSEs actively engaged in conferences and webinars organized by entities like Feeding America, FEMA, and the United Nations, extracting valuable insights to enhance their operational strategies.

Social innovation in COVID times: Learning and change in strategy

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic created extraordinary operating circumstances for HSEs, prompting rapid adaptations in their innovation approaches. HSEs operating in resource-scarce environments engaged in ‘parallel bricolage‘, ingeniously utilizing a diverse range of accessible resources for multifaceted purposes to address the abrupt surge in demand and operational hurdles quickly. This included organizing online volunteer legal and safety consultant teams, developing virtual fundraising events, and reorganizing operations to meet social distancing mandates.

However, as the pandemic evolved, the adaptation strategy underwent a shift. As HSEs became more acclimated to the ongoing pandemic conditions, they transitioned towards ‘selective bricolage‘, directing their efforts and resources more strategically towards targeted solutions and areas of necessity. For example, in compliance with social distancing guidelines, HSEs pivoted to drive-through distribution models, ensuring the safe provision of food while maintaining distribution efficiency. Furthermore, as familiarity with the pandemic increased, they augmented their food donations through social media campaigns. They tailored their services to cater to the needs of high-risk populations by implementing doorstep food package deliveries.

In summary, the experience of “making do” with limited resources emerged as an advantage, enabling the development of innovative solutions amidst severe resource scarcity.

Key takeaways

Clearly, social innovations constitute a pivotal element in the resilience and prosperity of HSEs. Nevertheless, there are intricacies regarding the types of social innovation that warrant consideration by HSE managers.

For HSEs endowed with abundant resources, the focus should be on leveraging these internal resources to drive innovation. This approach is exemplified by prominent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the UNHCR and the World Food Programme, which have established dedicated innovation departments. These organizations have adeptly directed their considerable resources towards nurturing innovation across diverse domains, including advancements in social development such as water sanitation, hygiene, and medical initiatives.

At the same time, HSEs with limited resources are encouraged to seek joint work with others and to leverage resources and expertise from diverse partners. This approach proves not only effective but also efficient, requiring minimal financial investments. In a tangible illustration of collaboration and innovation, the CEO of an HSE elucidated how their collaboration with grocery stores and farmers substantially curtailed waste management costs. This partnership enabled them to judiciously utilize resources that would otherwise go to waste, showcasing an innovative approach to resource management and cost reduction in their humanitarian endeavors. Furthermore, the study advocates for cost-effective innovation strategies, suggesting that “making do” with readily available resources and creatively recombining existing assets can often yield highly effective solutions.

Drastic times often require drastic measures. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, certain HSEs resorted to parallel bricolage, allocating their constrained resources across a spectrum of innovative endeavors. For instance, they innovated sourcing and distribution methods, such as repurposing school buses to deliver food to children dependent on school meals.

Overall, the study provides valuable guidance for HSEs operating within the humanitarian sector, demonstrating that innovation can be achieved through resource-rich and resource-scarce pathways. It highlights the significance of strategic deliberation in crafting social innovations and furnishes practical illustrations of how organizations can tailor their strategies to align with their unique resource environments.

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Journal reference

Shaheen, I., Azadegan, A., & Davis, D. F. (2023). Resource scarcity and humanitarian social innovation: observations from hunger relief in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Business Ethics182(3), 597-617. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-021-05014-9

Iana Shaheen is an Assistant Professor of Supply Chain Management in the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Her research interests focus on leadership, uncertainty, and disruptions in supply chain settings. Specifically, Dr. Shaheen looks at how disruptions affect commercial supply chains and investigates the significance of leadership and resilience during the response and recovery stages. Additionally, Dr. Shaheen studies inter-organisational relationships within humanitarian supply chains. Her research has been published in Production and Operations Management. Prior to academia, she worked as a senior supply chain analyst in industry.

Dr. Arash Azadegan is a Professor in the Supply Chain Management department at Rutgers Business School. His research focuses on supply chain disruptions and the effects of inter-organisational response and recovery efforts to mitigate them. He has several publications related to supply chain resilience and disaster response in commercial and humanitarian settings. Dr. Azadegan’s work is published in several top Operations and Supply Chain Management journals such as the Journal of Operations Management, Production and Operations Management Journal, Journal of Business Ethics, and Journal of Supply Chain Management.