Change Nation, change lives

In Dublin last year, 50 of the world’s leading social innovators gathered to share ideas on how to tackle key challenges facing the country. We are now seeing results, writes Carl O’Brien


At a function in Washington DC earlier this year – full to the brim of politicians, celebrities and businesses leaders – the Taoiseach spotted Paul O’Hara in the crowd.

“He just pulled me over, out of the blue, and asked, ‘do you think I’m a good changemaker?’ ”

For O’Hara, it felt like a significant moment. Change Nation, the initiative he is helping to spearhead, started out as a way of importing social innovations into Ireland to tackle challenges facing society.

But it is also about much more than that. In the longer term, it is about inspiring people of all backgrounds to see themselves as “changemakers” and equipping them to tackle social problems in their own community.

“I think it’s going mainstream now,” says O’Hara. “Five years ago, social entrepreneurship was unheard of. Two or three years ago it was known, but not regarded. Now, all of a sudden, it’s like – ‘this is a serious thing’.

“The Government is behind it and people are driving change in their own communities – and the Taoiseach’s involvement has been key.”

One of the most encouraging signs so far has been the progress made over the past year or so transforming ideas into concrete action.

This was the basis of Change Nation’s summit in Dublin in March of last year when 50 of the world’s leading social innovators gathered to share their ideas on how to tackle key challenges facing the country.

The idea behind the event was to connect proven solutions with talent and finance to accelerate innovations in areas such as the environment, health, education, civic participation and economic development.

The three-day event – billed as a “social innovation platform” – involved more than 300 short one-on-one meetings between social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, business and political leaders.

From Canada came the idea of Jump Maths, a new way of teaching mathematics to children who have previously struggled using conventional methods.

Or from France was Siel Bleu, which introduces adaptive physical activity to older people, helping to delay the onset of age-related illness and improve the quality of life.

From the US came Kiva, a crowd- funded micro-loans programme which provides seed finance to low-income entrepreneurs.

The aim at the time was to get as many as half of the ideas up and running within a year.

“The demand ever since has been great,” says O’Hara, looking back on last year’s event. “We’ve brought a total of 56 ideas over here so far and we’ve found there’s measurable demand for about 46 of them. There are 20 up and running and having an impact on people’s lives.”

One of the most successful so far has been Roots of Empathy, an evidence- based classroom programme that has dramatically reduced levels of aggression and increased empathy among school children since it was set up in 1996.

The programme, developed in Canada, aims to develop young people’s emotional literacy, the ability to recognise and understand emotion in oneself and others, and to respond to their own emotions.

“Once you deliver it consistently, you can deliver the results, guaranteed,” O’Hara says. “It increases kindness, compassion and sharing . . . in many ways it is as vital as reading or writing.”

After linking the founder of Roots of Empathy with Barnardos and the Health Service Executive, the programme has increased its presence from a handful of schools to 68 and, in the process, touched the lives of thousands of schoolchildren.

“The feedback from parents and the wider community has been phenomenal,” says Serena Mizzoni, a co-director of Ashoka. “Parents are seeing how their children have changed and how they interact with their siblings. It has gone beyond the classroom and is delivering even more benefits than it set out to.”

At one recent event, teachers and parents who were passionate about the programme gathered to discuss how to expand it. Ironically, many didn’t know who the Change Nation representative at the event was, who it was that had helped to deliver the project. This, say O’Hara and Mizzoni, is exactly what they want: to deliver and scale up solutions and then let the community take over.

But turning ideas into actions is easier said than done. If social issues can be easily tackled, then they would surely have been solved by now. As former US president Bill Clinton has said, nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere – the real problem is scaling the solutions up.

Along the way, the Change Nation team has learned what works and what doesn’t. To help scale-up ideas, they have found that adding a person with real experience who can help open doors and network is important.

That’s why they’re adding “change architects” to their younger team of “change executives”, who are typically young graduates or professionals. “The most successful teams tend to be super- solid and passionate,” says O’Hara. “They are fully committed to delivering.”

In the current economy, though, all the passion in the world can’t match the need for funding. Raising seed capital and finance has been one of the biggest and most stressful challenges of all.

The Government has committed itself to the creation of a “social innovation fund”, worth €5 million, which will be matched by private philantrophy. In addition, groups such as the Ireland Funds and Community Foundation provide vital finance.

A new frontier is crowd-based finance. Change Nation plans to begin sourcing funds from members of the public – it could be donations of anything from €5 to €50 – which could prove to be a valuable, untapped resource.

Change Nation plans a meeting in Farmleigh in June to benchmark its progress. Perhaps though the most exciting developments ahead lie beyond the social innovations the team is working to develop.

Increasingly, the Change Nation movement is seeking to inspire nothing less than society itself to tackle the issues that surrounds it.

The team is working on the development of “changemaker” schools and universities – Dublin City University is already signed up – which will look at ways of tackling social challenges in their communities.

There is also a bold plan to measure the progress of society through a well-being index – which can measure community ties, relationships and health – instead of narrow economic indicators like GDP.

All in all, it is about inspiriting and empowering society – cities, towns, communities and individuals – to become an agent of change.

“We think this is an irreversible movement,” says O’Hara. “We’re trying to build a society where everyone is a changemaker, or identifies themselves as one. There are changemakers everywhere: in media, government, business and all kinds of social concerns.

“They have the power to become role models for others. We’ve seen how the social-entrepreneur movement swept the world – now it’s about doing the same for the changemaker movement.”

PANEL: Ashoka Tackling problems with entrepreneurial zeal

In 1980, Bill Drayton founded a global organisation called Ashoka. Its basic idea is summed up in the term he coined – “social entrepreneurs”.

It was at the time an unlikely grouping – merging a word like “social” which belonged to the left with “entrepreneur”, associated with the right.

Drayton’s big idea was to apply entrepreneurial zeal to solutions that can tackle some of the world’s most critical social problems.

It is now an association of more than 3,000 social entrepreneurs who, instead of leaving it to government or business to tackle challenges, are creating innovative solutions and, in many case, producing extraordinary results.

Since starting off in the developing world, it has expanded into Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Its Irish branch was founded in 2007 which has looked to import innovative ideas from other Ashoka members across the world.

This led to the establishment of Change Nation last year, which brought together 50 of the world’s top social entrepreneurs to Ireland to help spread their proven solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges.

It currently has a staff of seven, along with a group of about 25 “change executives” – graduates or young professionals – and an expanding network of advisers and supporters around each of the Change Nation solutions.

The initiative also has corporate partners which provide marketing, financial and legal expertise free of charge.

Paul O’Hara, director of Ashoka in Europe and founder of Change Nation, is a former marketing executive who says he left his job to find a more meaningful role.

He was drawn to the world of social innovation after visiting a friend in Zimbabwe. It opened his eyes to the daunting scale of social problems – food, education, water, health – and also how interlinked they all were.

He left his job and started work on an “ethical bottled water” brand and came in contact with Ashoka a few years later.

After meeting staff from the organisation, he was asked to join Ashoka in 2006.

Ever since, he has been working with other members to maximise the impact of social entrepreneurship and assisting projects with market research, networking and fundraising.