Defining Changemaking

A Developing Field

Changemaking. Social innovation. Social entrepreneurship. As is the case with any new and developing field, the terminology used to describe it is developing at the same time. Here is one provisional set of definitions and differentiations offered by Ashoka U.

three concentric ellipses, described from the innermost circle to the outermost, all-eoncompassing one:  1) Social Entrepreneurship: market-based, usually sustainable; 2) Social Innovation: Methodology to create social value at systems-change level, potentially economic value; and 3) Changemaking:  Effective organizational or social change

Note, however, that in the same gesture of offering the model, the author of this article cautions against wasting energy engaging in definitional debates, when the point of the field and its evolving aspects is to put ideas into action.

Some Working Definitions

from Ashoka U Working Definitions 


Effective organizational or societal change.

In the context of higher education, it includes the following:

  • Social entrepreneurship
  • Social Innovation
  • Service learning
  • Civic engagement
  • Social justice
  • Philanthropy  

See also Ryerson University's Social Innovation and Entrepreneurial "Learn" page for fuller differentiation between these terms.


  • Someone who has found the self-permission to advance change for the good of all.
  • Someone who is intentional about solving a social or environmental problem, motivated to act and be creative.

Social Entrepreneur

A type of changemaker who creates widespread impact by being focused on systems change. Every social entrepreneur is highly skilled at collaboration, and is often focused on equipping others to thrive and collaborate in solving social problems (i.e. to be changemakers). (see More than Simply “Doing Good”: A Definition of Changemaker).

Social Innovation

Methodology to create social value and potentially economic value at the systems-change level, which addresses the root cause of a problem. It includes new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that address social needs of all kinds – from working conditions and education to community development and health.

In the context of higher education, it includes the following concepts (see The Rise of the Sophisticated Changemaker by Marina Kim and Erin Krampetz):

  • Systems Thinking: To identify new ways of addressing complex problems, social innovators need to understand how elements within a system are connected. Systems thinking requires mapping the stakeholders involved, understanding how incentives are aligned, and identifying root causes in order to propose interventions for systemic transformation.
  • Solutions: While it is always important to understand problems—and existing approaches—before offering solutions, change efforts too often stop at the research phase. Social innovators give themselves permission to relentlessly learn, adapt, find, and implement solutions.
  • Innovation: While many social change models and strategies exist, new and creative approaches are sometimes needed in order to address intractable problems. Assessment of whether a new approach is more effective or more efficient than pre-existing solutions is necessary in order to justify pursuing an innovation over existing alternatives.
  • Scale: Social innovation models typically have relevance beyond one particular situation (e.g., a school) and can be applied at a systems level (e.g., to an entire school system). Yet innovations that occur at scale can offer both breadth (affecting a significant number of people) and depth (transforming relationships, structures, and systems in a particular place).
  • Financial Sustainability: Social innovation aims for a triple bottom line of economic, social, and ecological value. Achieving this bottom line requires securing and aligning resources of all kinds, combining private, public, and philanthropic support with income generation to ensure ongoing sustainability.
  • Impact Measurement and Assessment: When trying to use resources wisely and deliver results, learning what works and what does not work is of utmost importance. For example, formative and summative assessments offer critical information to guide continuous feedback and improvement.
  • Collective Impact: The most difficult and important problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without involving multiple sectors (nonprofit, public, and private) and diverse stakeholder perspectives. Social innovation encourages collaboration across organizations in order to use resources effectively and efficiently, and to achieve significant lasting social change.

The Four Levels of Impact

A framework Ashoka developed to categorize different approaches at different levels to social impact. (See the Rethinking the Impact Spectrum by Marina Kim)

  1. Direct Service
  • Work in populations needing services, food, and/or a direct benefit to their wellbeing. Direct service has a clear and concrete feedback loop – you can see hungry people being fed; students are gaining skills and confidence through mentorship; or the clients getting legal help.
  • Examples: Soup kitchens, small-scale mentoring programs for students, legal services for community members
  1. Scaled Direct Service
  • Models that unlock efficiency and impact through well-managed logistics of an intervention or solution. Scaled Direct Service benefits large numbers of individuals.
  • Examples: The Red Cross, AmeriCorps, or large-scale refugee resettlement programs.
  1. Systems Change
  • A new model that is addressing the root cause of a problem. It often involves policy change, widespread adoption of a specific methodology by leading organizations in a sector, or creates new behaviors within an existing market or ecosystem.
  • Examples: Micro-credit was a fundamentally new innovation for women to lift themselves out of poverty. B-Corporations rethink corporate responsibility. Wikipedia democratizes the way information is shared online.
  1. Framework Change
  • Framework Change affects individual mindsets at a large scale, which will ultimately change behaviors across society as a whole. While Framework Change is not a specific field-level or country-level intervention, it compounds the work of many individual organizations to create a paradigm shift.
  • Examples: Universal Human Rights, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, Democracy, or the idea of Social Entrepreneurship.