The world is full of buzzwords… social innovation notwithstanding. 

Our heightened awareness of the many social, economic and environmental challenges in our communities and around the world compels us to find solutions. But what does it mean to try to solve social problems and is there a single definition?

We believe that social change occurs through many different pathways:

Social Entrepreneurship 

Creating social change through the founding of new organizations such as social enterprises, non-profits or for profit companies

Community Engagement

Creating social change through volunteerism, engaged research and service learning, often in partnership with individuals and groups closely affiliated with improving the welfare of a community 

Social Activism

Creating social change through citizen-led movements that influence culture, social norms and ultimately policy

Policy and Governance

Creating social change through the laws that govern a community and its people

What unites these pathways is the focus on creating better outcomes and this is Social Innovation. It’s not always a shiny ‘new’ idea (it can be), but it is always about creating positive impact for public good. Through social innovation, some UNC students, faculty and staff pursue large-scale systems change while others work on important incremental change that has the power to transform the future. 

Here are just a few of UNC’s Impact Stories:

Baristas and builders podcast: Inspired by the idea that UNC faculty and students should have a way of spending money on campus that goes directly back to the campus, co-founders Lauren Eaves and Scott Diekema share insights into creating, launching and running Meantime Coffee Co, a popular, campus coffee shop. Listen in and learn how The Meantime motivates its team to meet the mission and vision of the organization, all while creating professional development for students.

Hope grows here: The Farm at Penny Lane, located on 40 acres in northern Chatham County, uses a holistic and sustainable approach to enhance the quality of life of individuals with severe and persistent mental illness by offering opportunities to become healthier and more self-sufficient.

Healthy food that helps the community: Good Bowls are healthy, frozen meals designed to address food insecurity in low-income populations. Created by Alice Ammerman, Mildred Kaufman Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, the initiative aims to create economic opportunities for local farmers and food entrepreneurs as well.

Transforming sex education through technology: Liz Chen and Cristina Leos are co-founders of the Real Talk app, a mobile app that uses real stories by real teens to convey relevant and credible information about the issues that teens go through growing up. Learn how they are improving the health and well-being of youth through this innovative learning tool.

Entrepreneurial minds over matter: The Dreamers-Who-Do program provides UNC-Chapel Hill students with the opportunity to explore their ideas, travel, learn, and create. All made possible by a donor who’s passionate about student education and philanthropic opportunities that have a social impact.

Community of Practice

Carolina Seminar on Innovation for Public Good

This seminar plays a catalytic role in amplifying the mission of Carolina by providing an educational pathway for our faculty and students to explore modern changemaking and practice the skills necessary to contribute toward meaningful change in the world. Participants explore evidence and promising based creative problem-solving approaches and early, team-oriented, customer/community discovery methods to develop solutions that address pressing human concerns. To join the SI@UNC listserv, email

Recommended Reading

To better understand the “what and why” of social innovation and changemaking in historical and current contexts, please see the curated list of high-quality articles, resources, videos and podcasts below.

Introduction to Changemaking and Systems Leadership

Changemaking: Tools to Spark Deeper Change: Short online course developed by Ashoka (2019) to introduce systems thinking and changemaking concepts.

From Social Entrepreneurs to Systems Change Leaders: Big Idea Talk (12 min.) by Daniella Papi-Thorton at the 2018 Ashoka U Exchange making the case for educating students as systems change leaders.

Answering Society’s Call: A New Leadership Imperative: Article from the Nov.2019 McKinsey Quarterly. See the ‘Empathy’ section for a discussion on the key capabilities of leaders seeking to direct systems change.

Call to Action

From Social Entrepreneurship to Everyone a Changemaker – 40 Years of Social Innovation: This issue of Social Innovations Journal (2018), is devoted to articles by Ashoka that analyze the results of the 2018 Global Fellows Study, one of the largest and most diverse studies of system changing social entrepreneurs ever conducted.


These articles and books are written by some of the early influencers in the social innovation and entrepreneurship field of practice as well as academia.


  • Karl E. Weick, “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems,” American Psychologist 39, no. 1 (January 1984)
  • Robert D. Putnam, “Prosperous Community, Social Capital and Public Life,” The American Prospect, Spring 1993
  • Michael W. Foley and Bob Edwards, “The Paradox of Civil Society,” Journal of Democracy 7.3 (1996)
  • Greg Dees, “The Meaning of ‘Social Entrepreneurship,’” CASE (October 31, 1998; revised October 30, 2001)
  • Donald J. Maletz, “Tocqueville on the Society of Liberties,” Review of Politics, Summer 2001, Vol. 63., Issue 3, p. 461
  • Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Even Bigger Change: A Framework for Getting Started at Changing the World”, Harvard Business School 9-305-099, Rev. May 12, 2005
  • Richard Pascale, “Positive Deviance and Unlikely Innovators,” Harvard Business Review (June 2006)
  • Clayton M. Christensen, Heiner Baumann, Rudy Ruggles, and Thomas Sadtler, “Disruptive Innovation for Social Change,” Harvard Business Review (December 2006)
  • Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg, “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Spring 2007)
  • James A. Phills Jr., Kriss Deiglmeier, and Dale T. Miller, “Rediscovering Social Innovation,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Fall 2008)
  • Paul N. Bloom and J. Gregory Dees, “Cultivate Your Ecosystem,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2008)
  • Philip Auerswald, “Creating Social Value,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Spring 2009)
  • Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt, “Design Thinking for Social Innovation,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2010)
  • Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair, “Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Fall 2012)
  • Robert K. Ross, “We Need More Scale, Not More Innovation,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Spring 2014)
  • Diana Wells and Supriya Sankaran, “New Paradigm for Leadership – Everyone Leads” (2016)
  • Bill Drayton, “More Than Simply Doing Good: A Definition of a Changemaker” (February 2016)


  • How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, by David Bornstein (2007)
  • The Power of Unreasonable People, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan (2008)
  • Little Bets, by Peter Sims (2011)
  • Understanding Social Entrepreneurship, by Jill Kickul and Thomas Lyons (2012)
  • The Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook, by Ian MacMillan and James Thompson (2013)
  • Getting Beyond Better, by Roger Martin and Sally Osberg (2015)
  • Innovation and Scaling for Impact, by Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair (2017)

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