Bridges as a social innovation case study
Bridges is a small, local community organisation that has a lot to offer towards big picture change.
The Bridges Network Approach (BNA) has been developing over more than a decade. It is a social innovation that has come from Bridges, while collaborating with many individuals and organisations - large and small.
Bridges provides an important case study for five key ideas/concepts that have been put forward by key thinkers in the social innovation movement:
1: Bridges as a systems-changing social innovation
The BNA is a social innovation coming from a small not-for-profit organisation. As a social innovation, it is systems-changing as it influences beliefs, behaviours and contexts; and also it has been used across fields. It has influenced beliefs, behaviours and contexts for addressing alcohol and other drug issues. The Approach has similarly guided Voice for SONG strategies that have influenced beliefs and the environment for small community organisations. It has also been used to increase organisational resilience through creating a more supportive environment(or context) for Bridges. Bridges, despite having operated on an insecure funding base, continues to go from strength to strength with relationships and networks that will further link with other networks to address other social issues.
2 : Bridges and social innovation's interest in ideas that can be scaled up
Scaling up or spreading systemic, strengths-based, collaborative ways of addressing social issues is intrinsic to the BNA. In 2000, when Bridges was known as Blacktown Alcohol and other Drugs Family Services (BADFS), it initiated the Bridges Project, supported by Western Sydney Area Health Service. Since then many individuals and organisational representatives have contributed to and used ideas from what is now called the BNA. Nirimba TAFE ran workshops and organised Bridges Project events in local schools. Many partners have indicated that ideas from the BNA have influenced their work. For instance, as a result of his participation in the Bridges Project, one representative indicated that the collaboration he experienced as a partner working on the Bridges Project influenced him to call together 70 Aboriginal representatives for a particular meeting. Further meetings followed, not necessarily convened by him. However, these meetings led to a new service being developed in the local area. In Bridges Stage II, a worker in the Blue Mountains (and an ex-President of Bridges), coordinated a project called "Bridges 4 the Ages." This project brought together young people and older people. The strategies and model were adopted in a proposal to form a consortium of seven non-government and government organisations to address mental health issues in the Blue Mountains. While the proposal did not proceed because it could not get funding, this use of the Bridges Network Approach demonstrates the interest and its relevance further afield. The same worker, who coordinated Bridges 4 the Ages in the Blue Mountains, began a Voice for SONG group in the Blue Mountains. This then led to a regional group followed by a statewide group. Lauren Harris, the worker, describes her experience of using what is now called the BNA.
In 2008, the organisation changed its name from Blacktown Alcohol and other Drugs Family Services Inc. to Bridges Inc.
In 2010, The Bridges Network Approach Report was published, providing a history of the development and implementation of this approach. The Report also puts forward the potential for this approach. Professor Peter Shergold (previously the highest serving public servant in Australia) wrote one the forewords for this report and became Bridges Patron. Dr Catherine Spooner (co-author of the "Social Determinants of Drug Use") also wrote a foreword.
In 2011 the BNA has provided the collaborative framework for the Centre for Volunteering's Skilled Diversity Project, which aims to increase take up of highly skilled culturally diverse volunteers in community organisations.
In 2012, Bridges has undertaken partnership work with Mt Druitt Indigenous Church over four years. This work is another example of the use of the BNA.
3: The need for collaboration, including the linking between small and large organisations
The development of Bridges, Voice for SONG and the Bridges Network Approach has only been possible because of the support and collaboration from many individuals and organisations, large and small. The social innovation movement recognises that many innovative ideas come from small organisations. These innovative ideas need to be nurtured by individuals and groups with additional resources and infrastructure.The Bridges Stage1Report acknowledges many partners, while describing the collaboration between the organisation, then called BADFS, and Sydney West Area Health in the coordination of Bridges as a project in 2000. The Voices_Project Report (1994/5) describes an earlier critical collaboration with Sydney West Area Health. The Bridges StageII Report describes significant contributions from small and large organisations including Nirimbas TAFE and Mission Australia Links to Learning.
The Bridges Network Approach Report, previously mentioned, discusses many collaborations.
Higher profile stakeholders were crucial for the success of Voice for SONG. For instance the Council of Social Services of NSW and Western Sydney Community Forum played roles in the birth and development of Voice for SONG, as described in the "2001 Emerging_Voice_and_survival_of_small_NGOs. Many small organisations have also been crucial. Without the support of all of these stakeholders, the BNA would not have developed and it is unlikely that Bridges as an organisation would still be around today. In addition, many representatives from large organisations have been on Bridges Board. Bridges actvities have also supported the work of large organisations.
4: The need for new funding models and other supports to harness social innovations
Sometimes, social innovations do not succeed fully because of issues such as short-term funding and lack of support. The funding structures for not-for-profits are not set up to nurture innovation. Bridges recognises this as an ongoing challenge to social innovation. Bridges has faced significant obstacles to its survival and development since the late 1990s, and provides an important case study for the unique context of a socially innovative small not-for-profit organisation constrained by short-term funding. Thorough documentation of the limiting effects of short-term funding in addition to Bridges' resilience can be found in media articles, publications & resources and annual reports. Bridges' resilience strategies have included collaboration, strategic use of scarce resources and organisational flexibility.
Like many social innovations, the Bridges Network Approach has been severely negatively affected by the lack of long-term investment in solutions that work. It is important for Bridges to promote what has worked : FAHCSIA's funding model as implemented under the NIDS Strengthening Families Measure has been a model of collaboration and flexibility.
Bridges also wishes to acknowledge flexibility it has recieved from other funders.
Bridges works towards developing collaborative relationships with funders and donors. In addition, Bridges is interested in liasing with funders and donors on how the BNA can provide an alternative to some of the consortium models of funding.
5: Bridges and the concept of social entrepreneur
The initial key ideas for Bridges came from Tirrania Suhood, Execuitve Officer of Bridges. The core ideas of Bridges are not rocket science. Ideas of collaboration, strengthening relationships and systems thinking are common ideas used by many people. However, the implementation of such ideas is not simple. Ashoka's definition of a social entrepreneur is someone 'with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems...ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change...possessed by their ideas, committing their lives to changing the direction of their field.'
Tirrania's commitment with Bridges so far has been 20 years - commitment to the organisation as a vehicle for changing systems, ideas and networks. Her focus has been less on growing the organisation, and more on addressing complexities, while assisting community through strengthening networks at the same time as strengthening Bridges. As part of this she has been committed to progressing the development and scaling up of the BNA. She has been instrumental in the development of Bridges the organisation, from Bridges the project. Tirrania was also the driving force behind Voice for SONG, and she has been a leader in the discussions, debates and projects and changes in practice of workers and funders that have stemmed from these structures.
Throughout her time at Bridges, people have consistently wondered why she has not moved on. Tirrania's answer is that systems change takes many years. For example, Muhammad Yunus was working towards micro-credit for 20 years before the context shifted enough to allow the extraordinary success that grew from his efforts.
Click here to view Bridges history through the eyes of the media