Social Change: Who Will Make It Happen?
By Peggy Dulany and Barry Smith
July 2009

Peggy Dulany is Founder and Chair of Synergos; Barry Smith is Synergos’ Senior Director, Southern Africa.
This article was written for a book detailing the first Promise of Leadership Dialogue, organized by the Nelson Mandela Foundation held in March 2009 on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. The aim of the dialogue was to bring together existing and emerging leaders in Africa to brainstorm ways in which they could address the challenges facing the continent.
The book may be ordered online.

Social Entrepreneurs as “Change-makers”

Many of us are excited about “social entrepreneurs” as indispensable change-makers for a more sustainable world. What is a social entrepreneur? Ashoka, which convenes a worldwide network of social entrepreneurs, says that:

Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps. Social entrepreneurs often seem to be possessed by their ideas, committing their lives to changing the direction of their field. They are both visionaries and ultimate realists, concerned with the practical implementation of their vision above all else.

So here are some of the key words and concepts that describe social entrepreneurs:

Social entrepreneurs are also, by definition, leaders. Typically, they are pragmatic visionaries, with a multidisciplinary bent of mind, who draw on the best thinking from all sections of society. Many are recognized for their creative application of market and business approaches to social initiatives, sometimes resulting in new forms of organization, like “social enterprise.” As well as bringing their own ingenuity to bear on a social challenge, they draw on the collective wisdom of diverse players in the system – the genius of the group – to bring forth new perspectives and solutions.

Do social entrepreneurs now represent a social sector unto themselves? Some think so, although arguably we have social entrepreneurs in each sector, and need more of them across government, business and civil society (or “the citizen sector”). Although many social entrepreneurs emerge from the nonprofit world, most become keenly aware of the need to connect with the powerful engines of government and business to drive long-term, systematic change. Thus, as natural boundary-crossers, social entrepreneurs quickly come face to face with the strange coexistence of interdependence and fragmentation that characterizes the environment for work on social change – or, as some would frame it, social justice.

Change in an Interdependent but Fragmented World

We live in a highly interdependent and globalized world – a reality that is starkly evident in the rapid spread of the current economic crisis. It has become a commonplace that no single sector or set of actors can take exclusive responsibility for meeting the challenges of entrenched poverty and social exclusion. Confronted at every turn by the complexity of the world’s development challenges, one of our biggest challenges is the lack of trust, common purpose and collaborative leadership between the various sectors and stakeholders in development.

Recent patterns of economic growth have typically been accompanied by high levels of social and economic inequality, poverty and marginalization. In many societies, those left behind by economic growth and globalization sense that they are part of a “zero sum game” in which there are clear winners and losers. There is widespread polarization around the fault lines of ethnicity, nationalism, race, class and sector. “Silo mentalities” are evident everywhere, and leaders in government, business and civil society often lack a basic understanding of the role or potential of other sectors.

In this climate of fragmentation, too few initiatives really grapple with systemic blockages, marshalling the resources and creativity of all sectors, and working for system-wide change.

Social Entrepreneurs as “Bridging Leaders”

In this context, the experience of The Synergos Institute over more than 22 years suggests that a critical dimension of the change-maker role of social entrepreneurs is “bridging leadership.” Bridging leadership is a leadership approach to address complex issues and social inequalities. It is both a process and a style of leadership that focuses on stimulating and sustaining effective working relationships among stakeholders whose collective input is needed to make progress on a given social challenge. Bridging leadership is about leading collaborative action to bring about social change.

A bridging leader is a leader who is capable of developing and exercising their leadership potential:

Synergos, Bridging Leadership and Inclusive Partnerships

Synergos works to inspire, build and support inclusive partnerships that address the systemic causes of poverty and inequity. By “inclusive partnerships,” Synergos means collaborative initiatives that are as representative as possible of the all or most significant stakeholders in an issue, and that ensure a significant role and voice for communities, the poor and marginalized in determining their own future and finding solutions to their problems.

Our hypothesis is that collaboration between government, business and civil society is a necessity if the world’s massive and complex social deficits are to be overcome. More effective dialogue, “bridging leadership” and partnership building are required to bridge deep socio-economic divides. All sectors need to recognize the necessity for sustained engagement between social partners – and in particular, to amplify the less powerful “voices” of the poor and the civil society sector; to protect and expand the public spaces in which the poor can access power and mobilize as citizens; and to create a more level playing field in which civil society organizations and citizens can play a meaningful role in multi-sector partnerships.

In Southern Africa, Synergos is active in a number of multi-stakeholder initiatives that work to foster bridging leadership, innovation and systems change in the fields of public health and children in distress. In the Middle East, we have recently launched the Arab World Social Innovators program, a three-year initiative that supports twenty social entrepreneurs individuals from across the region who are generating new ideas, creative approaches and promising solutions to pressing social, economic and environmental problems. Similarly, at a global level Synergos convenes its Senior Fellows Program, bringing together world class leaders in a learning and action network to advance collaborative solutions to poverty and social injustice. In all of these efforts we are learning more every day about the critical need for leadership development across sectors around the themes of bridging leadership, personal and collective transformation, systems change and inclusive partnerships.

Social Entrepreneurs: Enlisting the Collective Potential of All Stakeholders

Who will make social change happen? There is certainly a role and potential for each sector. Synergos has identified the following opportunities for a more integrated response:

Who then will take a lead in enlisting these opportunities and our collective potential to tackle “stuck” social problems? We must nurture and mobilize bridging leaders in every sector, and my vision is that social entrepreneurs will be in the forefront of this movement for lasting change.