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  • Jeroo Billimoria

Are You a Social Innovator? Exploring the Qualities that Make the Difference

Discovering the Characteristics of a Social Innovator

Am I a social Innovator? Who is a social innovator? What does it mean to be a social innovator?

Historically, social innovators were often considered the leaders of social enterprises, corporate or government initiatives, and some academics. However, my experience has shown that a social innovator is not defined by their position, but rather by a set of distinct characteristics.

Many of my younger colleagues and students have started their organisations and become amazing leaders in their own right. At the same time, other colleagues have been crucial to the process of driving social change, even without being in a formal leadership role.

So, for me, a social innovator is any individual working within the social innovation ecosystem — or even a student — who embodies certain characteristics.

In this blog, I have outlined certain distinct characteristics that I have observed across the multiple teams and organisations I have worked with.

I have presented them in bullet points so that after receiving your feedback, we can create a sector-specific quiz and build a community of like-minded people from all walks of life.

So read away and hopefully, you will find yourself a community!

A Specific Set of Characteristics Defines Social Innovators:

Discovering the Characteristics of a Social Innovator

Empowerment and Inclusivity

Social innovators often work with communities that have historically been marginalised, excluded, oppressed, or disenfranchised. Their work is critical to empowering individuals and communities to actively participate in decision-making processes within systems that historically have excluded these same individuals and communities from the decision-making table. Social innovators are champions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, ensuring that the voices of marginalised groups are heard and valued.

Local Proximity

Social innovators are similarly characterised by their proximity to a particular issue and/or their respective communities. Their proximity to communities means they have a shared lived experience of a social issue affecting them together. They have a shared characteristic (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc) with the community, and/or they have a shared geography with the community. Social innovators demonstrate a deep connection and empathy for the communities they serve, and this proximity allows them to envision a better future with a strong sense of purpose. Whether part of a mission-led for-profit or non-profit organisation, social innovators create opportunities for participation and representation within their local contexts.

Collaborative Leadership

Social innovators have a “we” mindset and the ability to build and maintain partnerships across diverse stakeholders. They leverage collective expertise and resources to amplify their impact. Social Innovators emphasise an inclusive and participatory decision-making process while facilitating effective communication and knowledge-sharing. Importantly, they can share the limelight and give credit where it is due.

Creative, Innovative Problem-Solving

Social innovators have a strong ability to identify innovative and scalable solutions that fill gaps that other actors especially governments, funders, and civil society stakeholders have been unable to reach, particularly within their respective communities. They analyse complex issues, identify root causes, and use out-of-the-box thinking to create solutions that are often much more impactful due to their deep understanding of community needs. Indeed, research shows that organisations led by social innovators are stronger than those led by external leaders.

Holistic Systems Approach

Social innovators adopt a systems-thinking mindset, recognising the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental factors. They design solutions that address multiple dimensions of a problem, understanding the complex interlinkages from the root cause of a problem all the way to downstream challenges. Because of this holistic lens, they anticipate and mitigate unintended consequences of interventions.

Balancing Risk and Resilience

Social innovators operate in complex environments, but they can take calculated risks to pursue innovative solutions and challenge the status quo. At the same time, they demonstrate resilience in the face of setbacks, embracing failure as a learning opportunity to improve future efforts.

Strong Personal Integrity

Lastly, social innovators uphold strong personal principles rooted in people and the planet. They exemplify values like transparency, accountability, ethics, and fairness in both their personal and professional lives, and they encourage those around them to do the same. This means that social innovators “walk the talk” and ensure that they incorporate integrity and honesty in all interactions and decisions. For example, social innovators will responsibly pay their fair share of taxes to ensure that governments can equitably use these funds for public good.

Social innovators will also proactively buy local products, including locally grown agricultural products because they are adamant about reintroducing local economic and sustainability dynamics at the local community level. Thus, social innovators follow the norms of responsible citizenship while encouraging others around them to do the same.

These characteristics are not exhaustive, and I am sure there are more that could be added so please do add and share.

But I hope this blog has given you a deeper understanding of what it means to be a social innovator. If you see yourself embodying these traits, then you are part of a growing community of like-minded individuals working to drive positive social change.

I encourage you to continue exploring and developing your social innovation journey. You can also check out the Catalyst community here.

Until next time!

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