Diversity and Democracy

The Rise of the Sophisticated Changemaker

Many of us are working as educators and practitioners to help students develop the mindsets and skill sets of changemakers, even if we use different names for this work. Each of our various educational approaches to social change—from civic engagement and service learning to social innovation and philanthropy—offers valuable perspectives and different strengths for addressing a spectrum of social challenges.

Yet within higher education, silos between different divisions, a lack of common terminology, and duplicative staffing structures have resulted in limited collaboration among faculty and staff and a lack of clarity for students seeking well-defined pathways. As a result, students’ ideas and energy may be scattered. They may never get involved in addressing social challenges; or they may move too quickly, proposing new innovations without fully understanding the context or the existing players.

An educational framework integrated across social change methodologies would offer depth of content and breadth of experience, providing opportunities for students to develop their citizenship skills and hone their entrepreneurial abilities so that they can think and act effectively within systems. To develop such a framework, faculty, staff, and industry professionals will have to become changemakers themselves. We will need to understand the contexts of our diverse fields and institutions, build coalitions, and expand on each other’s experiences in new and creative ways as we support our students in pursuing social change.            

Social Innovation: Valuable Strengths

For nearly a decade, Ashoka U has supported colleges and universities as they embed the values and culture of social innovation across their institutions. In the process, we have partnered with a network of Changemaker Campuses, recognized for their institution-wide commitment to social innovation and changemaking. To date, thirty-seven Changemaker Campuses representing seven countries have participated in a rigorous selection process requiring buy-in from senior leadership, evidence of strong student and faculty interest, a long-term funding strategy, and a plan for how the institution will uniquely contribute to solving global problems. These institutions are models for other colleges and universities pursuing excellence in social innovation education.

In our work, we have drawn inspiration from the work of James A. Phills, Jr., Kriss Deiglmeier, and Dale T. Miller (2008), who describe social innovation as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.” Learning with and from our campus partners, Ashoka U has built on this statement to define social innovation in the higher education context as including the following concepts:  

  • Systems Thinking: To identify new ways of addressing complex problems, social innovators need to understand how elements within a system are connected. Systems thinking requires mapping the stakeholders involved, understanding how incentives are aligned, and identifying root causes in order to propose interventions for systemic transformation.
  • Solutions: While it is always important to understand problems—and existing approaches—before offering solutions, change efforts too often stop at the research phase. Social innovators give themselves permission to relentlessly learn, adapt, find, and implement solutions.
  • Innovation: While many social change models and strategies exist, new and creative approaches are sometimes needed in order to address intractable problems. Assessment of whether a new approach is more effective or more efficient than preexisting solutions is necessary in order to justify pursuing an innovation over existing alternatives.
  • Scale: Social innovation models typically have relevance beyond one particular situation (e.g., a school) and can be applied at a systems level (e.g., to an entire school system). Yet innovations that occur at scale can offer both breadth (affecting a significant number of people) and depth (transforming relationships, structures, and systems in a particular place).
  • Financial Sustainability: Social innovation aims for a triple bottom line of economic, social, and ecological value. Achieving this bottom line requires securing and aligning resources of all kinds, combining private, public, and philanthropic support with income generation to ensure ongoing sustainability.
  • Impact Measurement and Assessment: When trying to use resources wisely and deliver results, learning what works and what does not work is of utmost importance. Formative and summative assessments offer critical information to guide continuous feedback and improvement.
  • Collective Impact: The most difficult and important problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without involving multiple sectors (nonprofit, public, and private) and diverse stakeholder perspectives. Social innovation encourages collaboration across organizations in order to use resources effectively and efficiently, and to achieve significant lasting social change.

Potential Vulnerabilities

While social innovation has served as an empowering framework for many educators and students, every approach to teaching social change has strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, social innovation has its fair share of risks, including the focus on new and potentially unproven ideas; a propensity for action, perhaps without all the information required to act responsibly; and a possible bias toward a deficit model focused on addressing community problems rather than embracing community assets. All of these issues represent key vulnerabilities in developing university-based programs, and are noted in several recent articles and blogs.

For example, educators Eric Mlyn and Amanda Moore McBride (2015) describe a major critique of social innovation related to innovation for innovation’s sake. They argue that an attraction to what is new and exciting can lead to ideas developed without adequate research or understanding of the existing context. However, we would argue that innovation can encourage movement beyond old ways of thinking. By focusing on long-term solutions rather than short-term interventions, innovators can learn from what already works before rushing to innovate new models.

Another recent critique comes from the Deputy Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, Daniela Papi-Thornton (2016), who makes the case for “Tackling Heropreneurship.” Papi-Thornton posits that the contemporary explosion of idea and business plan competitions has served to glorify the role of the individual and establish a focus on products and services as outcomes to be judged. Highlighting process instead of product, she proposes “funding for learning, not just solving” and calls readers to “celebrate a range of social impact roles.” Indeed, it is important for students to identify with many roles involved in social change—including those played by leaders, managers, activists, and change agents across business, government, and nonprofit sectors.

Finally, journalist Courtney Martin (2016) highlights a lack of humility as a key problem of social innovation. Without adequate preparation, students may enter communities with solutions that are not relevant, culturally appropriate, or needed, and they may inadvertently harm those they are trying to help. While this critique could apply to anyone engaged in community-based work, a focus on humility could only improve social innovation’s impact and effectiveness.

The vulnerabilities described above are all of serious concern; yet many can be addressed and mitigated by educators who articulate the strengths, weaknesses, and biases of their respective approaches and who guide students through an array of experiences while working toward the end goal of creating a better world.

A Changemaker Toolbox

The strengths and weaknesses of social innovation suggest the value of an integrated approach. As indicated above, focusing only on social innovation is not sufficient, and when done badly, it can cause negative unintended consequences for communities. At the same time, community engagement and service-learning approaches alone might never allow students to see the full potential of their ideas or, in some cases, the true scale of the problems at hand. The solution lies in combining the best aspects of these multiple educational approaches.

As educators, then, we must provide students with an array of approaches to changemaking. We can prepare students to become sophisticated changemakers able to adapt to any situation by offering a toolbox that contains a diverse set of tools: social innovation, civic engagement, service learning, community engagement, philanthropy, design thinking, public policy. Not every tool will be appropriate for every situation all the time. But with a range of theories, approaches, and methodologies in their toolboxes, students can develop the wisdom to deploy the right tool for each job and to combine approaches strategically for the greatest potential impact.        

Each field that might contribute to the changemaker toolbox has value as part of the whole. In order to work better together, practitioners of each approach must get out of our own comfort zones, learn from the expertise associated with other methodologies, focus on a shared goal of preparing students to be sophisticated changemakers, and break down institutional boundaries. To accomplish this integration of approaches, educators might consider the following actions:

  1. Develop comprehensive changemaker pathways: Design holistic student learning pathways that build on each other in developmentally appropriate ways and provide opportunities for students to acquire the tools in the changemaker toolbox.
  2. Encourage T-shaped changemakers: Expect students not only to gain deep academic experience through their majors, but also to study and engage in other approaches so they become well-rounded graduates. As described by Jeffrey Selingo (2016), the vertical line of the “T” represents deep understanding of one subject matter (e.g., history) as well as one industry (e.g., health care); the horizontal stroke represents the ability to collaborate across disciplines, with empathy and communication skills playing key roles in allowing individuals to connect across different perspectives. 
  3. Invest in on-campus integration and relationships: Consider improving staff coordination, investing in joint marketing of opportunities, sharing office space, co-branding major strategic initiatives, and designing integrated student experiences. Build relationships of trust, a shared set of values, and an aligned vision for how collaborative efforts can be greater than the sum of their parts.

By taking these steps, faculty and staff can identify areas of opportunity, spark new collaborations, build integrated strategies with enhanced impact, and include campus stakeholders in crafting a vision for change.

New Models for an Integrated Framework

Ashoka U’s Changemaker Campuses are already testing new models for an integrated social change educational framework. And promising work is emerging at institutions across the country.

At Tulane University, IGNITE: Community, Creativity, Change is an immersive preorientation program that unites five campus departments with unique approaches to social change. IGNITE provides incoming students with connections to peers passionate about engaging in community; mentorship from upper class students; relationships with Tulane staff members with personal and professional expertise in social justice, community engagement, and social innovation; and exposure to local leaders who model effective ways of creating positive social change. The program introduces students to multiple curricular and cocurricular pathways, such as an undergraduate minor in Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (SISE); a peer-training program to discuss issues of power, privilege, and identity; and a multicultural leadership retreat. Integration across disciplines is modeled in other elements of Tulane’s work, such as a series of endowed Social Entrepreneurship Professorships held by faculty across the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences.

Arizona State University (ASU) has developed a four-year curricular and cocurricular program to foster cross-sector leadership across majors. After evaluating existing public service programs at other colleges and universities and conducting an internal landscape analysis, ASU’s Office of University Initiatives launched the Public Service Academy (PSA), a collaborative leadership development program that trains military and civilian national service leaders to take on complex social challenges across sectors. The PSA’s first initiative, the Next Generation Service Corps (NGSC), builds on the insight that tomorrow’s leaders will have to work across sectors to solve complex social problems, often through careers that span multiple industries and organizational types. The 2015–16 inaugural class brought together 117 first-year students from eighteen US states representing fifty-two academic majors for classes, “corps building” experiences, mentorship, and internships. Students who participate in this four-year program will graduate with a certificate in cross-sector leadership.

These examples—which exemplify program integration, staffing integration, faculty engagement incentives, and innovations for student awareness-building—are heartening. But we need more models that can reach more students, as well as research efforts to help us better understand the potential benefits of various disciplines, methodologies, and social change approaches.   

Conclusion: Educators as Changemakers

At Ashoka U, we see social innovation not only as an educational offering, but also as a new mindset for reenvisioning the role of the university. We propose taking the best of social innovation—a combined focus on collective impact, systems thinking, innovation, scale, and financial sustainability—and applying it to higher education to create an integrative educational framework for social change. We can accomplish our goal of helping students become sophisticated changemakers only by empowering faculty and staff to see themselves as institutional innovators and to try new approaches, programs, and ways of working. Will you join us?


Martin, Courtney. 2016. “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.” Medium: The Development Set, January 11. https://medium.com/the-development-set/the-reductive-seduction-of-other-people-s-problems-3c07b307732d#.wsapvcwzf.

McBride, Amanda Moore, and Eric Mlyn. 2015. “Innovation Alone Won’t Fix Social Problems.” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2. http://chronicle.com/article/Innovation-Alone-Won-t-Fix/151551.

Papi-Thornton, Daniela. 2016. “Tackling Heropreneurship: Why We Need to Move from ‘the Social Entrepreneur’ to Social Impact.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, February 23. http://ssir.org/articles/entry/tackling_heropreneurship.

Phills, Jr., James A., Kriss Deiglmeier, and Dale T. Miller. 2008. “Rediscovering Social Innovation.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall. http://ssir.org/articles/entry/rediscovering_social_innovation.

Selingo, Jeffrey J. 2016. “The Myth of the Well-Rounded Student? It’s Better to Be ‘T-Shaped.’” Washington Post, June 1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/06/01/the-myth-of-the-well-rounded-student-its-better-to-be-t-shaped/.

Marina Kim and Erin Krampetz are both cofounders of Ashoka U.

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