Portrait von Georg Schön, Co-Direktor und Geschäftsführer von Ashoka
Georg Schön © Ashoka

Social entrepreneurs are developing and implementing innovative solutions in communities across the world.[1] While their proximity to the communities they serve provides them unparalleled expertise and network access to create systemic innovations[2] informed by local context, they often lack the robust resources—financial and otherwise—needed to scale and replicate their solutions.  

INGOs are powerful actors in global civil society. Exemplified by organizations such as Oxfam, Save the Children, CARE, Plan International, SOS Children´s Villages, and the Red Cross, INGOs marshal global reach and extensive expertise. With thousands of employees across multiple global locations and annual budgets larger than those of some Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) donor countries, INGOs deliver aid on a massive scale.  

INGOs and social entrepreneurs bring unique and complementary value to their collaborations. This synergy can be integral to spotlighting and scaling innovative solutions to entrenched and persistent social and environmental challenges.[3] INGOs can play an important role as connectors, brokers, and partners for social entrepreneurs to accelerate impact. Social entrepreneurs’ tested solutions can scale through the program delivery power and (international) reach of INGOs. INGOs and social entrepreneurs can combine their know-how and co-create programs to better serve their target populations.  

These collaborations can advance the international development sector toward more inclusive, localized, and co-created action. As the funding gap required to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) widens, the call for new approaches to solve the world’s most pressing challenges grows louder.[4] The system of international development is transforming. There is a growing awareness and commitment to redirect international funding to local organizations and to dismantle colonial structures in aid.[5] Nevertheless, in 2020 the OECD reports that less than 1% of total Official Development Assistance went directly to developing-country based civil society organizations.[6] It´s time to place social entrepreneurs and local changemakers at the center of this system. We believe that an increase in mutually beneficial, sustained, and intensive collaborations between INGOs and social entrepreneurs will accelerate this momentum.  

INGOs are in a unique position to reimagine development. Many INGOs are getting ready to deliver on this promise, despite myriad organizational barriers that can often slow down change. They hire innovative talent and build internal capacity in service of innovation. They enable their staff to share and build innovative ideas. They support and collaborate with social entrepreneurs. They strengthen local ecosystems of social innovation through lobbying and creating access to international funding and networks. They are starting to redefine their role, shifting from direct service organizations to scaling platforms.[7]

Social entrepreneurs provide expertise, solutions, and local ownership. Whether in relation to a novel technology, understanding of cultural nuances, or financial sustainability, social entrepreneurs offer expertise in areas that INGOs may be unfamiliar with. Social entrepreneurs create locally-driven solutions to address seemingly intractable problems—problems that INGOs, too, seek to address. When an INGO is looking to serve a target population, social entrepreneurs can step in with their tried-and-true solutions or can join forces to co-create new ones. Social entrepreneurs’ mindsets and agile organizational structures allow them to operate their organizations as quasi-laboratories. They are constantly experimenting, iterating, and optimizing – critical approaches to increase effectiveness of aid.  

It´s time to build the bridge between big INGOs and social entrepreneurs. This bridge is important, not just to enable grassroots innovators to unleash their potential, but also to further re-frame, innovate, and re-organize the practice of international development as such. Still, there is relatively little research on how INGOs collaborate with social entrepreneurs to catalyze new and innovative strategies for tackling pressing global issues. Our report is adding to the emerging conversation. Its insights are based on interviews with 35 social entrepreneurs and innovation leaders, mostly from INGOs. In addition, we surveyed 29 social entrepreneurs quantitatively, and held round tables, workshops, and informal discussions with many social innovators on the issue that informed the report. The report was peer-reviewed by more than 50 innovators from the field. It proposes 14 actions that INGOs, social entrepreneurs, funders, and intermediaries[8] can take to unlock the potential of collaborations for systemic social innovation. We hope that many more will join us in building transformative partnerships to advance progress on the SDGs.   

[1] For more on social entrepreneurship, see Ashoka United States (2022): The Unlonely Planet. How Ashoka Fellows Accelarete an Everyone a Changemaker World

[2] For more on systems innovation, see IDIA (n.d.): Systems Innovation Blog Series – Part One: Systems Innovation

[3] For more on innovation4development, see IDIA (n.d.): Why Innovation?

[4] For more on Development Innovation Principles in Practice, see IDIA (Jul 2019): Development Innovation Principles in Practice

[5] For more on e.g., USAID´s New Vision for Inclusive Development, see Global Governance Forum (13/04/2022): Global Embrace of Localization: Changing the Power Dynamics in Development and Humanitarian Aid Systems

[6] See OECD (Jun 2022): Aid for Civil Society Organisations. Statistics based on DAC Members’ reporting to the Creditor Reporting System database (CRS), 2019-2020

[7] In the report we feature a range of social innovation efforts, such as the United Nations Development Program Accelerator Labs, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Solferino Academy, Save the Children’s Kumwe Hub, CARE France´s Inclusive Business Program, Oxfam Novib´s Impact SME Development Program and several partnerships between INGOs and social entrepreneurs.

[8] More on the role of intermediaries, Social Innovation Forum (15/02/2018): How Can Intermediaries Accelerate Social Change?

About the author

Georg Schön is Co-Director at Ashoka Austria and part of Ashoka Europe´s leadership team, where he led the creation of its Community Program, a learning and collaboration space for thousands of changemakers to accelerate systemic social innovation. He co-creates social entrepreneurship accelerators, leadership programs and innovation ecosystem initiatives around the globe on the world´s most pressing challenges. Before joining Ashoka, he worked across Central America and Southeastern Europe as social entrepreneur, peace activist, and program manager for UN Agencies. Georg Schön holds an MA in Political Anthropology and an MSc in Renewable Energy Management.

Georg Schön co-authored the report discussed in this article.

Sozialunternehmerische Ansätze gewinnen in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit immer mehr an Bedeutung. Um die Kompetenzen ihrer Mitgliedsorganisationen in diesem Bereich zu fördern, Synergien zu schaffen und auf Potenziale einzugehen, organisiert die AG Globale Verantwortung Austauschveranstaltungen und vernetzt sie mit Sozialunternehmen, die entwicklungspolitische Zielsetzungen verfolgen. Etwa im Rahmen des Ashoka Visionary Program, das die AG Globale Verantwortung mitverstaltet.

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