Illustration by Moriah Ray

On the eve of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, 53-year-old Arunkumar Khannur packed a bag and set off for the town of Sankeshwar, 385 miles outside of his home in Bangalore, India. He would arrive the next day when he was scheduled to host a workshop he hoped would inspire local leaders to improve the lives of the Kuruba, a marginalized Hindu caste of farmers in southern India. It would be a fitting way, he thought, to celebrate the birth of the “Father of the Nation.”

Arunkumar isn’t an activist or development expert. He is a successful IT consultant who believes in the importance of social inclusion and wants to do his part to improve the lives of India’s poor. His daughter, Deepti, introduced him to the concept of social entrepreneurship while pursuing her Masters in Development at Bangalore’s Azim Premji University. He then went online, stumbled upon one of +Acumen’s free online courses and signed up for Market Segmentation at the Bottom of the Pyramid. That was six months ago. Arunkumar has since signed up for nine more +Acumen courses. The courses, he tells us, have “changed his world.”

Armed with his newfound knowledge, Arunkumar embarked on a journey to spur change but quickly learned that the path isn’t always clear when working with marginalized communities. Our Adaptive Leadership course, he says, taught him to negotiate the values, loyalties and losses of the different parties involved. The successful castes don’t necessarily want change since the system is, after all, how they acquired their wealth and status. And the marginalized castes, often deemed “untouchables,” don’t trust anyone they deem as outsiders. A week before Sankeshwar, a villager tried to hit Arunkumar in the face thinking he had come to exploit them. Arunkumar explained his interest in helping the villagers improve their livelihoods, and the men have now apparently become good friends.

Despite these challenges, Arunkumar soldiers on. He has created a pilot to bring solar-powered spinning machines to villages and connect farmers to markets for their crops. Applying the lessons from our course, he is also collecting data to see how fields vary from village to village to help farmers with their yields. His passion is infectious, his energy immense, and, at 53, he is just beginning his journey to change the world.

How to Harness the Passion of Many

It is unclear what will become of Arunkumar’s efforts, but we at +Acumen believe that he — and what he wants to achieve — matters. And so do the millions of people around the globe who are trying to figure out how to make a difference in the world. We believe it will take all of us to make a dent in poverty and the social injustices we see in the world today.

Would Arunkumar have been able to start this journey without +Acumen? According to him, no. The programs and universities building tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and social change agents are not only few and far between but often exclusive and expensive. Not many institutions that have pioneered the sector have taken the time to synthesize their lessons in easily digestible forms for the public’s use or are interested in sharing their intellectual property since it’s a driver of their revenue and growth. Arunkumar is early in his journey and still has a lot to learn about what it takes to create effective social impact, but that shouldn’t stop him — or anyone looking to make a difference — from forging ahead.

When I joined Acumen in 2009, a growing number of passionate individuals were knocking at our door wanting to get involved in any way they could. It was flattering but also frustrating because, as a relatively small organization, we only had so many positions to offer and no real way to harness the power of this amazing community. But then I realized that Acumen wasn’t the end goal.

The end goal was encompassed in our mission — to change the way the world tackles poverty. If we wanted to change how we, as a society, address one of the biggest issues of our time, we couldn’t keep what we were learning within the walls of our offices. What good would that do? We needed to share what had worked — and not worked — over our 10 years of investing in some of the toughest markets in the world, so people could take these lessons and apply them in their own communities.

Of course, it was easier said than done. Until we stumbled upon the idea of online courses.

+Acumen: An Experiment

In late 2012, we noticed that online education was becoming increasingly popular as platforms like Khan Academy, edX, and Coursera began attracting a significant user base.

So together with Jessica Martin — then a short-term associate at Acumen now a core team member of +Acumen — we hacked our first +Acumen online course, leveraging existing content from the Acumen Fellows programs and free tools like Google Docs and Facebook Groups. It was an experiment. Neither of us had much experience as users of online courses, but we knew our course needed to be different. What we wanted to teach was very different. Many online courses at that time focused on technical skills like math and computer programming. We were interested in the bigger issues of social change, leadership, and what it means to do good—and these don’t have black-and-white answers.

We knew +Acumen would be a different beast entirely, so we established three elements to set our courses apart:
1) +Acumen courses are designed to be taken in small groups, be it in person or virtually, so people work with and learn from each other.
2) +Acumen courses are project-based because we want our students to learn by doing and experience how to apply our tools to real-world problems.
3) +Acumen courses are free, so anyone anywhere with access to the Internet can learn how to drive social change.

We tested our first course in November of 2012 with a close community of volunteer chapters in Vancouver, Toronto and New York and a group we knew in Kampala, Uganda to ensure that bandwidth wouldn’t be a barrier to access. Despite the unfortunate timing of launching in the middle of the holiday season, the course was a hit. People participated diligently, formed groups, met new friends — and, most importantly, learned a lot. They clamored for the next one.

Three months later, in February 2013, we decided to take the same course and try our hand at broadening our reach. Acumen promoted the course with one Facebook post and one Tweet and, in a matter of hours, we had 3,500 signups from 103 countries around the world.

And once again, participants loved the course. As the feedback came in, we were thrilled to find that people were gaining real value from this simple course. “The course is an eye-opener on how poverty should be tackled.” “The information was empowering. It encouraged self discovery.” “The combination of online with offline was beautiful! Such a great learning experience.”

It was clear we were on to something.

Creating a Platform for Change

We started to build our first few courses. At first, we looked to Acumen’s Fellows Program for inspiration. Designed to cultivate the balance of hard and soft skills, the program provides the right mix for becoming a successful social leader today. We convinced the program’s longtime partners The Ariel Group, IDEO.org and Cambridge Leadership Associates to take a leap with us and put their content online for free. From there, we have designed course after course based on what Acumen, along with other organizations, has been learning on the ground.

In a matter of two years, we built 20 unique courses ranging from Measuring Social Impact to Scaling Social Ventures, and we plan to add at least 10 more to our roster in 2016. We’ve had more than 275,000 sign-ups from 176 countries. People come from all walks of life — idealistic students, budding entrepreneurs, new and experienced philanthropists, lifelong civil servants, hardened business professionals, gritty international development professionals, savvy, socially conscious designers, government workers, passionate teachers, retirees, interested parents, you name it. What astounds us is the enthusiasm and sheer work ethic they bring to the courses and beyond.

It’s been a wild ride, but we’ve only just begun. Today, +Acumen is the largest massive open online course provider in the social sector, but we continue to push our thinking to find new ways to facilitate offline learning with our online courses. We’re seeing +Acumen students use our courses as a springboard to drive innovation within their organization, start their own social enterprise and galvanize others to pay more attention to the poor. It’s making this connection, from online to offline that spurs engagement and increases action. We want to create more opportunities for our students to stay connected even after their courses end, whether it’s connecting them to jobs or crowdfunding their ideas and ventures through our community.

At +Acumen, we understand that the world is changing and the urgent problems of today require a new approach: one driven by generosity, collaboration, the courage to innovate across boundaries and the conviction that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things.

Acumen’s ultimate goal is to give passionate, empowered people, like Arunkumar, a way to step up and create change. We know none of us can change the world alone but, at the same time, we believe every individual matters. Like Jane Goodall said, “Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference.” Whether you are a seasoned change agent or just beginning your journey, +Acumen is here to provide the tools, inspiration and community that can help you on your path. We look forward to changing the world with you.

Jo-Ann Tan is Lead Architect and Director of +Acumen.

For more information on +Acumen, visit www.plusacumen.org.