Social Innovation Cases

Studying real-life examples of social innovation help students see how the principles they’re learning in the classroom are put into practice. The Institute for Social Innovation funds the development of Social Innovation Teaching Cases exploring the challenges of developing and running a social impact business. This section includes summaries of available cases. For more information contact the Center for Engaged Teaching & Learning.

Brighter Bites 

Houston attorney Lisa Helfman is determined to replicate the positive effects of a CSA membership for children living in Houston’s urban food deserts. By devising innovative partnerships with the Houston Food Bank and a Houston KIPP school, Helfman hits on a formula that makes real impact on the diet of students and families. With strong political support, the program quickly expands, but Hellman realizes her program might be hitting the limits of what can be accomplished with the current model. At the same time, she is approached by the USDA and offered significant funding to take the model nationwide. 

CSR Case Study: Verizon’s App Challenge 

The largest mobile service provider in the country fosters community engagement, innovative thinking, and technological literacy in middle school students by sponsoring the national Verizon App Challenge Competition. Some winners receive further benefit when they receive opportunities to develop the app and earn revenue for their schools. 

CSR Case Study: Verizon Innovation Learning Schools 

Verizon’s CSR focuses on creating positive impact in American public schools by integrating technology in underserved public middle schools. The first VILS schools exhibits the challenges and benefits of wholly integrating technology into schools while furthering Verizon’s mission. 

Grand Circle Travel (A): Culture as a Competitive Advantage 

Global travel entrepreneur Alan Lewis develops an unconventional corporate culture based on fostering associate’s abilities to make decisions and lead during the constant crises endemic to the global travel industry. The case opens with Lewis weighing options on how to handle the  2011 Icelandic volcanic eruption, which caused the largest air travel interruption in history and poses the risk of huge losses for the company. 

Grand Circle (B): Creating Value Through Social Action 

When a devastating earthquake hits the already destitute nation of Haiti, travel entrepreneur Allen Lewis spontaneously asks his staff to appeal to Grand Circle’s loyal customers to give matched donations to the Grand Circle Foundation. The Foundation is nearly overwhelmed by the response, and Lewis and his team realize they have hit on a new mechanism by which to engage customers, foster loyalty, and build on the mission of the Foundation.

Jewish Children and Family Services and Sy Friedland 

“Intrapreneuer" Sy Friedland is a visionary leader who brings entrepreneurial thought and action to a nonprofit years ahead of his time. Over the course of nearly two decades, he transitions the region’s largest social services agency to a mixed-revenue financial model and moves the organization from purely philanthropy-based to financially independent and sustainable. When Friedland decides to retire, he brings in high level professional consultants to minimize disruption, but a major misstep in the process causes outrage on the Board of Directors. 

InnerCity Weightlifting 

Inspired by his work with at-risk urban youth, 28-year-old Jon Feinman has created one of the only organizations in the country which can show proven, lasting outcomes with high risk, gang-affiliated youth by giving them career skills, exposure to the mainstream economy,  and a support network outside of the constrained world of the streets. Feinman is at a crucial juncture in growth: how can he expand the organization to meet the needs of more young people while maintaining his personal connections to the youth he serves and keeping his staff and clients safe? 

Pencils of Promise 

Millennial Adam Braun is one of the first social entrepreneurs to understand the power of social media, and he leverages grassroots support to launch his “for purpose” organization, Pencils of Promise, which is devoted to providing access to education for children in third world countries. Rejecting the traditional label of “nonprofit,” Braun applies the best entrepreneurial practices to his startup, and chafes against dated nonprofit regulations limiting his ability to attract talent and invest in the business. As the organization outgrows grassroots support, Braun is confronted with a dilemma: can he retain POP’s innovative and unconventional culture while competing for big league financial dollars in the traditional philanthropy arena?


After studying with the indigenous Quechua people in the Amazon basin, college student Tyler Gage realizes the local beverage, super-caffeinated guayusa tea, could be the means of sustainable agriculture for the local population and a way to prevent deforestation. Five years into the business, Gage still has the corner on the guayusa market and is seeking to become the nation’s number one  “clean energy” drink, but can he make the right call for the next step in rapid expansion? 

Uplift Solutions 

Philadelphia entrepreneur Jeff Brown is one of the only grocery entrepreneurs in the country who has figured out how to build profitable grocery stores in urban food deserts, as well as bringing community revitalization to “blighted” areas through nutrition education, healthcare, and banking services. Brown retools his personal nonprofit, Uplift Solutions, as a consultancy aimed at guiding grocery operators and developers through complex and recondite government funding sources, laws, and regulations aimed at helping inner cities. 

Year Up and Gerald Chertavian  

Social entrepreneur Gerald Chertavian founds a hybrid organization aimed at closing the “opportunity divide” between the needs of American employers and vast numbers of disaffected millennial youth who have dropped out or graduated from high school with no marketable skills.  After several years of running small scale but impactful programs, Chertavian is frustrated that his organization “isn’t closing the gap fast enough.” Can he scale Year Up without throwing out the model he has been perfecting for six years?