Skip to main content


ICC 650
Box 571014

37th & O St, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20057

maps & directions

Phone: (202) 687.6400



In Praise of Edge Organizations

The Morrill Act of 1862 established the ecosystem of state land-grant colleges. Its purpose was principally to build a bridge between academia and farm operators.

This was a time, of course, when agriculture was a sector that involved large portions of the working population. Over time, the land-grant colleges’ agricultural experiment stations provided direct services to farmers to innovate in hybrid seeds’ use and crop rotation. These outreach efforts were a bridge between academia’s building of theory and the day-to-day lives of populations outside. In a real way, the stations were “edge organizations” — entities designed to be close to a user of knowledge, to be flexible to the needs of the user, and to translate new academic knowledge to serve users.

Georgetown, with its focus on using knowledge to build a better world, especially for the disadvantaged, has built many research units devoted to direct application of knowledge. Many of the Centers at the McCourt School of Public Policy fit that description; other Centers that are part of the Medical and Law Centers fit that bill, as well.

This is a blog about one such Center – the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. The Beeck Center recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, a feat that was not at all certain at its birth. It is a Georgetown story, in many ways. The mission is to invent new ways to serve others, to improve the world. Its approach is that common to entrepreneurs. Further, it emerged out of the Georgetown ethos, imagined by investment by the Beeck family, devoted to the common good.

An equally important feature was that the Center sought to take advantage of young minds at a university. That is, placing the Center at a university was a deliberate decision, both to have access to the energy and creativity of youth, but also to build cohorts of leaders with the skills of social innovation to have multiplicative impact on the world.

Finally, the Washington, DC, location of Georgetown offered attractive access to senior public servants leaving government service after directing innovative initiatives to improve performance of agencies. They had fought the battles of change inside large bureaucracies and were filled with knowledge and energy to seek the same ends from the outside. They became the Beeck fellows, leading individual projects.

Not unexpectedly, like all startups, the early days were spent trying out different initiatives, different ways of improving the lives of others. Throughout this period, the central questions were both whether the idea was effective but also whether it would ramp. Could the idea scale up to serve millions of people, even though it might start locally, with a small, well-defined population? Scores of different projects were launched. A few found traction.

Over the early years, it became clear that a revolution in serving the disadvantaged might be emerging, given the correct foresight. For maybe the first time, technological change seemed possible in small county and state agencies and nonprofits serving lower income groups. Further, some parts of the private sector were turning their attention to their own responsibilities to the society beyond financial profit.

Slowly, a consistent theme arose. “Civic tech” was emerging. For example, as state and local chief data officers were being appointed to guide evidence-based decision-making, the infrastructure gap in their agencies became obvious. Building networks of these isolated innovators could provide sharing of expertise, coordinated software development, attention to customer needs in interfaces to benefits, and social support during the challenges of innovation within formerly paper-based organizations. They needed a knowledgeable honest broker to guide decisions about contracting versus in-house development.

The impact through the innovation was extraordinary. At this point, depending on how one counts, millions of people’s lives have been impacted by the Beeck Center’s initiatives. Several ideas that were small at birth grew to change entire landscapes of design and implementation.

Software development approaches used by state and local agencies have been enhanced by the honest broker role that a university-based center has offered. Networks have been built improving the efficiency of delivery of benefits to those who qualify. Private foundations have become aware that the facilitating role of the Beeck Center accelerates the rate of innovation in public services. Ramping impact is facilitated through coalitions having shared interests. Further, scores of Georgetown students have had direct experience in Center projects, learning social innovation by doing social innovation.

The consistent focus on populations in need is the Beeck Center’s North Star; a devotion to building meritorious ideas to scale is a constant; nurturing self-sustaining networks of innovators within agencies has become a replicable success. The Georgetown base offers strong legitimacy. The Center has become an integral part of Georgetown, on the edge of development and impact. Those supporting the Morrill Act of 1862 would be proud of how it has enhanced our university.

Happy 10th birthday to the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

Connect with us via: