Social innovator: how to learn how to implement ideas that change the world for the better

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Working just for money and status is a thing of the past. Now people want to influence the solution of social and environmental problems. Commercial organizations are actively involved in volunteering, millennials choose socially responsible employers, and almost one in ten of today’s youth wants to run a non-profit organization. Buyers, in turn, when choosing brands, pay attention to their position on social issues. These changes mean that the role of social innovators in the development of business and non-profit organizations is becoming increasingly important.
Who are social innovators

Social innovators are people who:

  • are able to recognize important problems for society,
  • come up with innovative and realistic solutions,
  • play for the long haul and strive for large-scale systemic changes,
  • know how to find resources to implement their ideas.

“These are wonderful and very strong people who, at the same time, need support and who find it rather difficult and lonely in their role. These are charismatic leaders. It is not always easy with them, but they are not indifferent and systemic. They know how not only to do good deeds, but also to set up business processes, evaluate the effectiveness and cost of the impact.”

Elena Martynova, Development Director, co-founder of Everland

As our research “Map of Social Change Leaders” and “Map of Leaders of the Best Practices of Interaction between Social and Environmental Projects and Business” show , specialists can be employees of corporations, authors of private social initiatives, representatives of non-profit organizations and social entrepreneurs.
What skills should a social innovator have?
A social innovator measures success not by profit, but by the changes that have been made during the work. At the same time, it is important for him to be able to manage both commercial and non-commercial projects. To do this, a social innovator needs to develop a whole range of skills.

“A social entrepreneur must have a healthy balance of entrepreneurial approach and irrational desire to change something, to take a leap of faith. But this irrationality must still be based on a business model and an entrepreneurial approach that is adequately replicated and scaled to external conditions.”

Daria Alekseeva, founder of the Second Wind charity foundation and Charity Shop

Emotional Intelligence

Social innovators often work with vulnerable people and face difficult situations. Emotional intelligence, on the one hand, allows you to better understand others, on the other hand, it helps inspire them to change and work together. In addition, developed emotional intelligence helps to avoid burnout.

“In my opinion, the ideal portrait of a social innovator should first of all tell us about the presence of emotional intelligence. I met the opinion that today it is more important than many soft skills. Despite the large number of programs that pump emotional intelligence, I don’t know how much this quality can really be developed in oneself. I believe that this is not very easy, you really need to work quite a lot on yourself, and not everyone will succeed. Most likely, people who are interested in social change already have some degree of emotional intelligence.”

Ekaterina Pluzhnik, Head of Sustainability, Rosbank

Critical Thinking

This skill allows you to make decisions based on the analysis of information, distinguish fact from fiction, form your own opinion and defend your position. According to the World Economic Forum, this skill will become one of the most demanded by 2025.

“It is important for a social innovator to be an absolute realist, to train critical thinking skills, to be focused on a systematic approach, to see the prospect of significant social changes and plan measurable metrics for their evaluation.”

Evgenia Chistova, Head of CSR at Beeline

Resilience and tolerance for risk

This skill allows you to cope with many obstacles that all social entrepreneurs face: financial problems, the need to budget the project, lack of donations, and so on.

“It is important to learn to accept possible risks or failures that happen to us regularly, not to be afraid of them and to be able to calculate the consequences. Once you can map out the path in your head from failure to resolution, it becomes easier to figure out how to move forward.”

Daria Alekseeva, founder of the Second Wind charity foundation and Charity Shop

Result orientation

A social innovator wants to achieve real social change and is ready to be content with a minimum of resources and break many stereotypes in order to achieve the goal. This means that the vision of the future, in which the problem has already been solved, is more important for him than the limitations that exist today.


Out-of-the-box thinking allows you to find extraordinary and most effective solutions at the intersection of scientific disciplines, technologies and the experience of different strata of society. That is why the cooperation of business and non-profit projects leads to more sustainable results than the independent work of each of them. Many examples of such cooperation can be found on the study site “Map of Leaders in Business and Social Sphere Interaction” .

Openness to new ideas and situations is based on curiosity, which should be inherent in every social innovator.

“The ability to keep your mind and heart open to different ideas and approaches and the trained habit of seeing it as an opportunity for growth is really important.” Evgenia Chistova, Head of CSR at Beeline

As a social innovator, you often have to look at problems from a new angle, so this skill will definitely come in handy.

Project Management

All the skills listed above should be combined with the social innovator’s ability to manage project timelines and finances.

Where to go to study

In Russia, there are more and more training programs that are useful for social innovators.

Elena Martynova: “There are many programs that allow you to learn about the management of social projects. There are free accelerators from Impact Hub Moscow, the SOL Center, the Towards Change Foundation and others. There are paid programs at the Higher School of Economics, the Moscow School of Philanthropy and Skolkovo. But a social entrepreneur gains the basic knowledge in practice, when he begins to understand how this phenomenon works and how it differs from NGOs or businesses. From these “bumps” and a careful analysis of one’s activities, the main source of knowledge and experience grows.

Daria Alekseeva: “I recommend that social entrepreneurs roll up their sleeves and go do what you want to do. I doubt that these skills can be acquired in any educational institution, no matter how cool it may be. All comes with experience.

However, sometimes you need a fruitful environment that makes it easier to find what you’re missing and that helps you get inspired. In this case, I advise the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo and the Moscow School of Professional Philanthropy. These two places were the most valuable for me in terms of education.”

Evgenia Chistova: “Any NGO that has managed to build a systematic activity will help to master the skills of a social innovator.

Today universities are actively developing both master’s programs and retraining programs. I am a member of the Academic Council of the HSE Master’s program “Managing the sustainable development of a company”, in the fall we will start a new course with useful practical content. I can recommend it with an open heart. A new course is also planned at MGIMO, and an updated program at the RANEPA will start in September.

From programs that I managed to go through or come into contact with recently, the ASI program on design thinking for regional service commissioners left a very good impression.It is based on practical tools for designing social services at the level of governors’ powers.

Ekaterina Pluzhnik: “Now the market offers a large number of paid and free courses and programs from businesses and universities, incubators, accelerators, webinars. You can easily find any programs of interest. Large grant-giving foundations train start-up NGOs, and there are special programs aimed at developing social entrepreneurs.

For example, Impact Hub Moscow specializes in training and developing the community of social entrepreneurs. Rosbank and Impact Hub Moscow’s Start Different program is an accelerator for inclusive projects that helps them develop a sustainable financial model. The program involves recruitment on a competitive basis.”

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