How Social Innovators Unlock Transformational Social Change

By: Shivani Garg Patel, Chief Strategy Officer at the Skoll Foundation

“You don’t need to scale an organization to scale a concept that changes the system.”

Social innovator Jeroo Billimoria said this to me recently and it captures so well what we have learned from social entrepreneurs and other social innovators who we support on their paths to change systems and drive durable, lasting change.

Jeroo’s journey as a social innovator began in the late 90s with a generous and empathetic act of direct service — she saw the acute poverty and fragile existence of Mumbai’s street children and began to give out her phone number in case of emergencies. The phone rang so often that she launched Childline, an experimental free 24-hour hotline that connected vulnerable children with critical social services. Within two years, the Government of India had adopted Childline and extended it across the country. Now, as a collective impact organization with 167 members in 140 countries, Childline is Child Helpline International, and serves some 20 million children every year.

Listen to Jeroo talking about how Childline partnered with the Indian government to scale its impact and eventually help to shape global child protection policies

By the time the then nascent Skoll Foundation recognized Jeroo as one of its earliest Awardees in 2006, she had progressed her efforts to address childhood poverty at its roots with her breakthrough work as founder of Aflatoun, a social and financial education program for young people that helps them spark micro enterprises. In 2020, despite the global pandemic, Aflatoun reached some 5.5 million young people in more than 100 countries.

While Aflatoun continued to scale its impact, Jeroo built upon its model and launched Child and Youth Finance International (CYFI) in 2011, a collaborative effort to work at a systemic level with a range of institutional stakeholders to influence policy around financial literacy and financial inclusion of young people. “CYFI was born a systems change organization,” said Jeroo. CYFI sunset in 2019 after achieving targeted systems outcomes and building a movement around youth financial inclusion and financial education. CYFI’s initiatives were adopted by a consortium of organizations: Alliance for Financial Inclusion, the International Trade Centre, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Listen to Jeroo talking about how she built on the impact of Aflatoun to co-create the collective approach of CYFI.

These days Jeroo is known as a global, coalition building powerhouse. “My roots are in social movements and community building,” she said. “All social change, the real social and behavioral change, if you will look, it comes through social movements.”

She’s now one of the driving forces behind Catalyst 2030 a global movement of social entrepreneurs and social innovators from all sectors who share the common goal of creating innovative, people-centric approaches and shaping policy to attain the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

“Catalyst 2030 is the coming together of leading social entrepreneurs and realizing that individually we could achieve X, but if we came together through a collective path, it was X plus infinity,” said Jeroo. “We’ve built a common set of values and principles that mobilizes and empowers a diverse group of actors to collectively address root causes of the most pressing global challenges.”

Listen to Jeroo talking about the collective vision of Catalyst 2030.

Since January 2020, Catalyst 2030 has produced a series of reports exploring how government can partner with social entrepreneurs to amplify the impact of solutions that work, how corporates can partner with social enterprises, and how systems change efforts can be financed more effectively. The latest in the series — The People’s Report — collected data from over 17,000 participants in 43 languages in collaboration with Social Progress Imperative and Play Verto to galvanize world leaders during UNGA Week to meet the demands of the SDGs.

Jeroo’s evolution from the days of handing out her home phone number in the streets of Mumbai to building international policy shaping coalitions is a remarkable journey of one social innovator’s efforts to shift systems. Her evolution is a valuable example for the Skoll Foundation as it enters its third decade with a broadened aperture that continues to support social entrepreneurs — like Jeroo as leader of Aflatoun — as well as system orchestrating social innovators — like Jeroo as co-founder of Catalyst 2030.

Beyond definitions

When Roger Martin and Sally Osberg, founding CEO of the Skoll Foundation, elegantly made the case for a definition of social entrepreneurship in 2007, the field was nascent. “We would argue that the definition of social entrepreneurship today is anything but clear,” they wrote. “As a result, social entrepreneurship has become so inclusive that it now has an immense tent into which all manner of socially beneficial activities fit.” Their thought leadership helped to right-size that tent, to build and strengthen an identifiable field, and to elevate exemplary practitioners. They also acknowledged the “shades of gray” in their definition where social entrepreneurs build and implement scalable solutions while also sometimes acting as an innovative direct service provider and/or as social activist.

In the process of evolving our current strategy at the Skoll Foundation, we listened to our community of social entrepreneurs — those very same exemplary practitioners — who urged us to now broaden the aperture through which we see change driven. While social entrepreneurship — that tent that the Skoll Foundation alongside Ashoka, Echoing Green, Mulago Foundation, the Schwab Foundation and others helped to construct — remains central to our vision and evolved strategy, social entrepreneurs are one example of a range of social innovators we now support.

Far more important than our own classifications and definitions is how these social innovators work with others and within ecosystems to create magnified impact. There’s no single agreed upon definition of social innovation, and for good reason.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business was an early leader in teaching social innovation and embraced the fluidity and collaborative approach of the designation. “Social innovation is the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress,” wrote Stanford GSB professors Sarah Soule, Bernadette Clavier, and Neil Malhotra. “Social innovation is not the prerogative or privilege of any organizational form or legal structure. Solutions often require the active collaboration of constituents across government, business, and the nonprofit world.”

What Skoll looks for in a social innovator

At the Skoll Foundation, we view social innovation as the quest to solve a societal problem by applying a novel or reimagined solution that effectively contributes to lasting and systemic social change. Social innovators work towards a problem that’s solved durably, by addressing the underlying conditions and root causes.

Our lens on social innovation is meant to be inclusive — to support new types of actors working in reimagined ways. Our current aim is to invest in, connect, and champion those making the biggest impact on the toughest problems of our time across five issue areas: pandemics and health systems strengthening, effective governance, inclusive economies, racial justice, and climate change.

So, what does this broadened aperture look like in practice and how does it inform our sourcing process? We look for social innovators who prioritize societal problems that are ripe for transformational social change while targeting the conditions and root causes that hold the problem in place. We look for collaborative social innovators who knit together key players within a sector and across sectors to solve the problem. We look for social innovators who center equity and partner closely with and shift power to those most proximate to the challenge.

Social innovators in the Skoll community like Jeroo have helped us broaden our aperture, to see the potential for increased impact when we leverage the Foundation’s resources to support system orchestrators, proximate and intermediate funders, and movement and network builders.

Orchestrating economic systems change

In 2006, three friends — Andrew Kassoy, Jay Coen Gilbert, and Bart Houlahan — left careers in business and private equity to create B Lab, an organization dedicated to transforming the economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet. B Lab is most commonly known as the folks behind Certified B Corporations, but they do much more than that. From tools like the B Impact Assessment which uses B Lab’s standards to evaluate how a company’s operations and business model impacts workers, communities, customers, and the environment; to creating corporate governance structures like benefit corporation which embeds stakeholder governance to ensure a company is legally accountable to all of their stakeholders, not just shareholders; to mobilizing thousands of companies, B Corps and non B Corps, to take ambitious collective action on climate, antiracism, and inequality.

The B Lab founders saw shareholder primacy as the “source-code error in capitalism” and gave companies the tools and pathways to legal commitments to rebalance the scales to maximize not just profit but also purpose, by creating value for the planet and society. The first 82 B Corps were certified in 2007. These days there are some 4,100 B Corps in 74 countries. As the B Corp movement gained global credibility, it has become a north star for companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Athleta, and Patagonia that want to center their social and environmental impact and build it into their legal structure.

“What was clear to us was that economic systems change required building a community of businesses that could set an example for other people to follow, and later would allow all of those businesses to come together and exercise collective power,” Andrew Kassoy told me recently. “They could act together with power to do things like change public policy or change the behavior of larger communities of business on specific issues like climate change or racial equity.”

Listen to Andrew talking about the evolution of B Lab’s theory of change and role as a system orchestrator.

Here we see again the power of the network that creates the economic systems change — not the efforts of a single organization or individual. “I think one of the challenges with the idea of social entrepreneurship has been to encourage this notion of the single heroic entrepreneur out there, fixing a problem by herself or himself,” said Andrew. “That has gotten in the way of this idea that we need more collaboration. There’s a group of independent organizations in every region of the world that are building the B Corp movement in their own markets, and our job has been very much to see ourselves as serving that larger ecosystem.”

Listen to Andrew talking about the narrative work of the stakeholder capitalism movement

B Lab is now part of an even larger ecosystem driving the shift to stakeholder capitalism. With the launch of Imperative 21, B Lab has moved into collaborative leadership with a set of like-minded organizations including Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, Conscious Capitalism and Common Future to create a just economy that works for everyone — an economy that supports a collective vision of shared wellbeing on a healthy planet.

Imperative 21 brings large coalitions of organizations together around a common purpose and narrative to drive stakeholder capitalism — an economic system that is inclusive, equitable and regenerative. “We all may have a unique angle on what we think stakeholder capitalism means or a unique way of executing on it but having an overarching common story that we can all tell makes it much more likely that we’re successful,” said Andrew. “Imperative 21 is narrating a new economic system called stakeholder capitalism.”

Listen to Andrew talking about the signals of economic systems change and the role philanthropy can play

Like Jeroo’s thoughts about scaling a concept to change a system not requiring scaling an organization, B Lab is scaling the concept of economic inclusion and stakeholder capitalism across partnerships, coalitions, and a network of organizations to influence policy, business practice, and related narratives.

Where we’re headed and how you can help

We aim to support social innovators like Jeroo and Andrew as they and the organizations they lead move through their journey towards amplified impact with sustainable, systemic solutions in our strategic priorities: pandemics and health system strengthening, effective governance, racial justice, climate change, and inclusive economies.

We look to forge connections between social innovators and key stakeholders across sectors to catalyze additional resources and relationships. To that end, Skoll continues to expand its platform and partnerships for engagement, collaboration, and orchestration and looks for new and innovative ways to champion the messages and stories that will unlock change.

A message I hope to leave you with is that it’s time for us funders to rethink how we define and understand scale beyond direct reach and “hockey stick” organizational growth. It’s time to support social innovators who focus on scale of impact through and with others.

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