Social Innovation

How these social innovators harness community and collaboration to help create system change

People walk past Harvard University's Widener Library; social innovators' programme at Harvard.

Leadership for System Change: Delivering Social Impact at Scale is an in-person executive education module for social innovators at Harvard Kennedy School. Image: Unsplash/Pascal Bernardon

Sophia Otoo
Selections, Community, and Impact Specialist, World Economic Forum
Francois Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head of Foundations, World Economic Forum
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Social Innovation

  • In March 2024, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Harvard Kennedy School ran an intensive programme involving the world’s most impactful social changemakers, called Leadership for System Change: Delivering Social Impact at Scale.
  • The aim was to bring visibility to these social innovators’ work, offer capacity building, and provide access to network and partnerships to enable them to scale their impact.
  • We asked some of the attendees to discuss how the skills they acquired and knowledge they exchanged during the programme has helped support their journey as leaders implementing social change at scale.

Social innovators around the world must use innovative approaches and unwavering dedication to navigate complex systems and dismantle barriers such as limited access to finance or lack of government support. The 3P framework for social innovation developed by Harvard University professor and Social Innovation and Change Initiative founder, Julie Battilana, helps social innovators to do this by considering the nature of the problem at hand, the person pursuing change and the pathway to change.

In March 2024, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Social Innovation + Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School used this framework as the basis for an intensive programme involving the world’s most impactful social changemakers. This initiative, called Leadership for System Change: Delivering Social Impact at Scale, was held at the Harvard Kennedy School campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the US.

For one week, 37 social innovators from the Schwab Foundation’s community participated in this intensive programme. It aimed to equip these social innovators with the tools to unpack the politics of social change, position their work within a larger system of change, develop leadership skills and identify pathways to scale their impact.

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We asked seven of these social innovators to tell us how the skills they acquired and the knowledge they exchanged with fellow social innovators during the programme will support their journey as leaders implementing social change at scale.

Zia Abbas, Executive Vice President of The Citizens Foundation, Pakistan

The Harvard Kennedy School faculty showed us frameworks and real-world experiences that related directly to some of the strategic challenges we face at The Citizens Foundation. We learned structured approaches to analysing systems, understanding power dynamics, building support networks and crafting narratives – elements that are usually left to leaders’ instinct or innate abilities.

Most importantly, thanks to the Schwab Foundation’s judicious and caring community-building efforts, I found myself sharing meals, family photos and life stories with a tribe of passionate changemakers. These incredibly wise people know all about what it takes to make change happen, but remain humble about their own remarkable triumphs and resolute in their hope for a better tomorrow.

Celina de Sola, President of Glasswing International, El Salvador

I came a long way during the week, learning so much from the incredible faculty and peers about leadership for systems change. I really enjoyed finding out about the relational nature of power – that authority and power aren't the same. Often, by giving up authority, we can generate more power to achieve transformation.

In our peer discussions, we were able to be a "mirror" for each other. This helped us see ourselves and our roles as leaders – including both strengths and flaws. And I was able to reflect candidly and constructively about what I could do better.

What an absolute privilege to have spent a week with people who have such passion, determination and deep commitment to social change.

A large group of people (social innovators) pose in rows for a photo in a lecture theatre.
The social innovators that participated in Leadership for System Change: Delivering Social Impact at Scale at Harvard Kennedy School in March 2024 Image: Harvard Kennedy School

Sameh Seif Ghaly, Founder of Together Association for Development and Environment, Egypt

I have attended many courses around the world in my practical and professional life, but none like this. Listening to and discussing the experiences of colleagues, as well as the lectures by specialists, helped me to develop a strategy for evaluating my organization and thinking seriously about building a second row of leaders.

When I returned to Egypt, I spoke to my team and board of directors about these important points and the need for a new strategy for change, development, sustainability and to build a second generation of leaders.

This course has changed the way I think about leadership, managing change and building strategies according to the needs and capabilities of the organization. This is what I am currently completing and achieving within our organization.

Khushboo Kumari, Chief Operating Officer of ShikshaLokam, India

To me, the programme offered an opportunity for bonds to be forged, ideas to be shared and hearts and minds to be opened up.

We explored wonderful conceptual frameworks of power, leadership, impact measurement, network effects and system thinking. We also applied our lived experiences to these frameworks under the case-based approach used by the programme.

The facilitators created an inclusive space for every voice to be heard. The richness of discussions was unparalleled and helped expand our learning experiences beyond the bounds of theory. These deeper interactions also helped foster connections and a sense of trust and camaraderie among participants.

A large group of people (social innovators) in rows, some seated, some standing.
The social innovators that attended the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Harvard Kennedy School's intensive programme, Leadership for System Change: Delivering Social Impact at Scale. Image: Harvard Kennedy School

Cosmas Okoli, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Mobility Aid and Appliances Research and Development Centre (MAARDEC), Nigeria

My participation in the programme gave me the opportunity to interrogate my failures and successes as a leader and explore the changes I need to make to grow my organization.

The facilitators were engaging and inspiring. The books we received are helping me dig deeper into the lessons learnt during the programme. And they will be my companion as I navigate system change and aspire to reposition my organization.

I learnt a lot from the facilitators, the case studies and assignments. Interactions with other social entrepreneurs has also given me insight into their struggles, challenges and triumphs. The opportunity to share my challenges and listen to the advice of other social entrepreneurs has equipped me with the knowledge I need to revitalize my organization and scale our impact.

Danya Pastuszek, Co-chief Executive Officer of Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, Canada

How do we close equity gaps and build good ways of being together? We must share an unshakable commitment to an audacious goal, centre the people furthest from the goal and align our resources.

The programme offered new tools for collaborative and outcomes-focused work. It’s shaped how I tell the stories that invite other people into partnership-based approaches to social change. It’s also shaped my understanding of power and offered practical tools I’ve used with colleagues to see the complexity in challenges and find ways forward.

I left the programme with new friends from around the world. But also with a renewed belief that the relationships on which collective social innovation sits need not take long to form when people find a shared goal and default to care for each other.

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Henrike Schlottmann, Managing Director of ProjectTogether, Germany

A transformative experience I’m taking away from the programme was seeing and feeling the power of public narratives. Listening to each participant share their stories not only brought us together as a group, it also highlighted the huge potential of narratives in uniting society towards common goals.

The daily practice of sharing leadership challenges in small groups also revealed unexpected value in receiving diverse feedback from leaders with different experiences and cultural backgrounds.

I am also taking away insights, learnings and questions around how to measure progress and set up accountability systems that come from within the organisation and the work that we do. One idea on leadership that stuck with me is always focusing on people's strengths and what they have rather than on their perceived deficiencies in all the work that we do.

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