The ChangeNation Model

“Build back better” is one of those phrases that caught on after the financial crisis that struck in 2008 laid waste to so many economies and the social and environmental activities they supported. Unfortunately, actual examples of building back better, or even making a serious attempt to do so, have been hard to find. Now, however, a model of how to do it may have been created.

From March 22nd-24th, Dublin played host to ChangeNation, an ambitious attempt to add the best that the world’s social entrepreneurs have to offer to the cause of rebuilding an Irish society battered, in some ways more than most, by the economic slump. Organised by Ashoka, a network of high impact social entrepreneurs (which we highlighted in our book as a philanthrocapitalism intermediary), it flew in around 50 social entrepreneurs who have achieved significant impact with their work in their home country (and in some cases, other countries), who spent three days sharing their stories and ideas, in two days of behind closed door meetings with leaders from business, politics, non-profits and the media, and a public festival of ideas (at which Matthew chaired panel discussions on collaboration, leadership skills and measuring progress).

The social entrepreneurs were drawn from six different fields, each of which the Irish hosts felt would be fertile ground for innovation in their country. These were economic development; civic participation; education; environment; health; and inclusion.

“Systematically importing and accelerating these proven solutions will increase our speed, efficiency and success rate in addressing these challenges,” argues Ashoka’s head in Ireland, Paul O’Hara, whose brainchild this was. Certainly, this “big bang” approach of bringing all these social entrepreneurs together at once created an inspiring sense of the possibility of large scale impact which is all too rare. It also ensured a lot of media attention, including a pull out supplement in the Irish Times. There were billboard ads across the city, telling the public that there are proven solutions available to tackle society’s problems. And it was a big enough event that Ireland’s richest businessman, Dermot Desmond, and the head of its government, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, felt motivated to turn up and support it.

In buzz and inspiration alone, it would have been hard for ChangeNation to fare any better. The sun even shone warmly in Dublin in March. But ultimately it can only be judged a success if it leads to significant impactful action in Ireland. Here, only time will tell.

Ashoka seems to have had three main strategies in mind, for turning the talking into action, each of them untested. One hope was that, having been brought to Ireland, the visiting social entrepreneurs would decide to launch an outlet of their organisation in the Emerald Isle. This was a bit of a longshot, with most of the social entrepreneurs saying they had more than enough to do back home without the risk of overseas expansion. By the end of the event, several of them said they were now considering it, however, so impressed had they been.

One of the big differences between social entrepreneurs and traditional entrepreneurs is that the social kind tend to care more about spreading their innovation than about owning the means by which it spreads. So, without exception, the visiting social entrepreneurs said they would happily share their intellectual property with anyone wanting to launch their idea in Ireland, mentor them, and so on.

So, the second and third prongs of the ChangeNation strategy was to find people ready to take on the task. They could come from the broader community exposed to the ideas by the ChangeNation events. Or, as Ashoka is particularly hopeful about, they could come from the “change executives” it has recruited, mostly 20-somethings who were each given one social entrepreneur to work with for three months before ChangeNation and, crucially, three months afterwards to focus on turning talk into action.

So, fingers crossed. Certainly, the three days ended with hopes high. There is talk of some combination of government and philanthropists establishing a social innovation fund to back initiatives coming out of ChangeNation. And there was much talk among the social entrepreneurs of taking the ChangeNation model elsewhere, to other nations or, in big countries such as America, launching a ChangeCity campaign in a city desperate for new thinking that works, such as Detroit.