More and more, organizations looking to have a positive social impact are realizing that philanthropic institutions can learn some lessons from those that are inspired by the profit motive. 

In an interview with Knowledge at Wharton, Diana Ayton-Shenker, a social impact strategist, founder and CEO of Global Momenta, and the first Nazarian Social Innovator in Residence at Wharton, explains how she works with people and organizations to optimize their impact through social entrepreneurship.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge at Wharton: What personal experiences shaped your career and inspired you to become involved with social innovation and entrepreneurship?

Diana Ayton-Shenker: Well, there were lots of them, but the way I came into innovation entrepreneurship was really more by default than design. I was driven and called to engage in work that would promote global social justice. And I thought that I would need to do that through the lens and framework of human rights law, which is how I began and entered this field. What I found out very soon was that the way I wanted to leverage the law and human rights to promote global social justice didn’t really exist. I needed to innovate that. And it turns out I’m very entrepreneurial in how I do that. So, before we had the language of social innovation, social entrepreneurship, I thought I was just doing my work — creating new ways to motivate and mobilize people and resources for progressive social impact. It turns out we now call it “social innovation” and “social entrepreneurship.” And I now not only get to practice that, but advise others on how they can optimize their impact and teach social entrepreneurship and provide training in that area.

Knowledge at Wharton: I feel like what people are talking about when they say “social innovation” or “social entrepreneurship” is constantly changing, just as the world is changing. Do you feel that people’s focus or what they mean when they say that has changed over the years? And how has it changed?

Ayton-Shenker: I think that it has changed, and it hasn’t. It has in that by using the language of entrepreneurship and innovation, we’re quite consciously adapting and applying business acumen, business practices, business sensibility and strategy to how we create social change. And I think that’s a good thing because [the] business as usual of how we … work in the social change sector isn’t sufficient any more. We need new tools. We need new strategies. And drawing from the private business sector is a really creative way we can do our work better. Adopting the language of innovation is important and exciting, because it inherently compels us to constantly iterate and reiterate and renew how we create change. We innovate in that way. So, in those senses, I think the new language reflects a change.

I also think it causes a change in how we carry out our work. I also think, though, there is a constant of people’s desire to make a difference, people’s desire to have our work matter, to have our time, our efforts, our energy and our resources generate value. And I think that that’s a very deep and innate human drive. The fact that we can now articulate that and identify that drive in new vehicles, new options that might engage more people and mobilize more people to realize their potential to make a difference is exciting. And that’s where we are in social innovation and social entrepreneurship.

“The best advice that I return to came from … a colleague of mine, Joy Anderson, who said, ‘Trust grace to surprise you.’”

Knowledge at Wharton: At Global Momenta, you work with clients to create customized plans to put social innovation and social entrepreneurship into practice. Can you take us through the process you use to determine what is the best fit for them?

Ayton-Shenker: Sure. I don’t have a cookie cutter solution and I don’t come in — as I heard colleague say at a conference yesterday — as a “social provider.” I come in as a thought partner. So, as a thought partner, I want to be a very active and astute (hopefully) listener to who my client is — as an individual, a family, a foundation, an organization, a company or their advisors — and what their needs are, what their vision is and what their resources are…. And then we strategize together on those factors. 

So, if I come in with a solution that I think meets all their needs, I could miss a really important opportunity that they might inspire in me to suggest or have themselves. And I see that also as an iterative process where we’ll work together to create the optimal strategy for them. So, my tag line with Global Momenta — and really my mantra — is to “optimize your impact.” That doesn’t mean necessarily “Maximize the numbers according to an algorithm that I’ve preconceived.” It means, “What is the optimal strategy for you?” Then, rather than imposing a solution on my clients, we’ll create that together as the partners.

Knowledge at Wharton: What are the most important things that you want to learn about them? What are you trying to learn to help them figure out how to optimize?

Ayton-Shenker: Oh, that’s such a good question. The big picture answer in terms of motivation is, “What is inspiring and driving their coming to me?” So, “What’s keeping them up at night and what’s getting them up in the morning?” And if I don’t get a feel of that spark or excitement, something’s missing and we need to find it.… That’s probably the first thing I need to learn about them.

The second is just more practical: “What are the resources they’re able to identify and mobilize for this vision?” And that need not be exclusively financial. … but [rather,] what really is the full spectrum of resources at their disposal that they want to bring to bear? 

And then the third is a structural organizational capacity. So, what is their style? … Do they want to be very hands-on or hands-off? What is their preferred role that they want to play? What are their success factors?… 

[Here’s] something I usually ask clients as a way of learning what I need to know from them: When they’ve been at the top of their game, when they know that everything’s lined up and they’re doing a great job and everything feels right and they get the feedback and the results that they want, what were the factors that they needed to come into play for that moment [to happen]? And we all have those moments. … A viewer watching this could think, “I know when that moment was for me. What was I doing at that time? Who was I with? What was my role?” If I can understand and learn that, then I will understand better how to work with that person so as we optimize their social impact, it’s customized to them and their needs.

Knowledge at Wharton: You also teach social entrepreneurship at The New School. What is the biggest thing that you’re trying to teach the students? And what’s the most important thing they’ve taught you?

Ayton-Shenker: What I learn every single time from the students is there is an unquenchable thirst and desire to be part of this era of social impact, if we can call it that. What I teach and want most centrally to convey is that we all have a role to play in this time and this process. And our world needs all of us. So, no one’s off the hook. And no one’s irrelevant. That it all matters. We’re not all going to be social entrepreneurs, but not everyone should be an entrepreneur to make a difference.

“By using the language of entrepreneurship and innovation, we’re quite consciously adapting and applying business acumen, business practices, business sensibility and strategy to how we create social change.”

We can understand social entrepreneurship as one driver of social change to then identify, “Where do I fit into that ecosystem?” Maybe I’m an investor or a philanthropist that is partnering with financing this kind of social change. Maybe I’m a conscious consumer or a teacher or another important role in this larger picture. But I have a place, and it’s up to me to take that stand and rise to the occasion, because the time is now to do so.

Knowledge at Wharton: That actually brings me to my next question. Social innovation impact often involves partnerships from the nonprofit sphere, from the private sphere and from the government sphere. How do you think people from each of these spheres — individuals or groups — can be better partners to each other?

Ayton-Shenker: I think it’s the same way we’re good partners in anything — that we’re mutually benefiting from the relationship, [and that] we identify and recognize that. We’re mutually respectful and recognizing of each other’s equal value and worth in the process. And I think that we are merging toward greater and better partnerships between sectors as we come into a convergence and understanding that we need different disciplines and industries working together to solve problems, or better yet, prevent them from happening in the first place. 

And we’re looking in that process, I think, of convergence and seeing more co-creation and collaboration that necessitates or reflects greater transparency and authenticity. So, that’s a shift in power, because we used to think that whatever our sector was, was the primary place from which we view the world, and then everyone else comes in or out, either giving us the power that we don’t have and we want and need, or taking from us the power that we’re going to hold over them. And I hope and see that we’re arriving at a point where we recognize the real power is in being present with each other. And that’s when you have really powerful partnerships.

Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about strategic philanthropy or corporate social responsibility?

Ayton-Shenker: I’m not sure what the biggest misperception is, but I think there’s some baggage that those terms come with, and perhaps there are misperceptions.

One is that it’s [like] what we call “greenwashing” with environmental programs that aren’t really doing anything good for the environment, but they look like it. [In other words,] that it’s just for show or it’s just semantic, but it’s not really making a difference. 

The other is that it’s making a difference, but that [the] corporate social responsibility program or strategic philanthropy initiative is an isolated and perhaps marginalized segment of the company or the philanthropy or philanthropic program. I think that those are misperceptions because while we may have started out that way, we’re learning to integrate and have more convergence of those kinds of initiatives — corporate social responsibility or strategic philanthropy — as part of how we do the business of social good, the business of our corporation, the business of our philanthropy.

I think there’s also a misperception of dismissing those initiatives — and I guess it relates to the other two perceptions — as being somehow not as important and not as central to the core mission of the corporation or of the foundation. But actually, sometimes, that’s the most important part. And when it’s effective, it’s actually embedded into the business. 

Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think [good leaders] can do to gain buy-in on all levels of the organization? What can they do to show people that it’s not just, “Oh, that’s that other thing that we do that I have to do,” but rather, that it’s something that’s actually core to the company or the organization’s mission?

Ayton-Shenker: Well, I think the role that leadership can play in sending that message is really important. And it’s demonstrating commitment and authenticity. So, if the leadership is committing resources — financial, time, positions, structure — to social impact initiatives, that sends a really powerful message that it’s not just an add-on, it’s not just an incidental nor is it marginalized. So, that’s one important piece.

I think another important piece is letting it be genuine and genuinely authentic for the leader. So, when the leader literally shows up and talks about the social impact initiatives, not as the separate piece — “Oh, now I’m going to do my social impact day” — but as part of how I go around my day, how I go about my business, then that authenticity is really felt. And it’s resonant. And people respond to what’s true and honest. And we sure know when it’s not.

“We’re not all going to be social entrepreneurs, but not everyone should be an entrepreneur to make a difference.”

Knowledge at Wharton: You’re part of launching a new incubator called Kick NYC. What are the goals of this initiative?

Ayton-Shenker: Well, Kick New York City is part of Kick International, a network of 13 cities around the world who are rolling out this new incubator. And we come in after the entrepreneur may have been inspired from an MBA program or a boot camp or some kind of intensive experience.… [P]erhaps [they’ve] launched a prototype or piloted a venture, but they need that kick to go forward or to take it up to the next stage. So, we are an intensive, concentrated accelerator to take the entrepreneurs through a training program that covers social entrepreneurship — all the good and the bad and the ugly and the beautiful and gorgeous that you need to know — and facilitates peer-to-peer learning and engagement along with mentor matching of practitioners in the field. And it all takes place in a co-working space devoted to social entrepreneurs so that they, as they’re incubating their idea or their own leadership, are in the environment of the community of social enterprise and entrepreneurship.

With the Kick New York City program as director, I’m also introducing a new element that I’ve created through Global Momenta and rolled out this summer, piloted through my partner, Inspiring Capital — who also has a terrific fellowship program — and I call that “Values in Action.” I’m looking at framing social entrepreneurship as the way that we live our values in the action of our work and our business. 

We’re framing the social entrepreneurship training through Values in Action looking at four what I call “compass points” to guide us through this new terrain [of] social entrepreneurship and innovation. And those compass points to guide us are inspiration, intention, integrity and impact. So, all of that comes together through the Kick New York City program, and then other ways that I can share that with clients and the community.

Knowledge at Wharton: For young social entrepreneurs — either young in terms of age, or young in terms just getting started in this space — what do you think are the biggest needs that they’ll have in terms of resources, tangible or intangible?

Ayton-Shenker: Well, I think there are several key resources that they need. I do think capital support is essential and really important. And I know a lot of colleagues and funders who say, “It’s never about the money.” It’s always something else they need. And that’s true. Unless you don’t have any money. And then, guess what? It’s really about the money. So, I think the capital support — financing — is really important.

Secondly, community. And by community I mean both infrastructure — a place physically that you go to where you interact with other people — and a community of human resources — people and peers you can engage with to support to, to try out ideas, to get inspired and supported by. So, capital, community, infrastructure. 

And then I think a lot of entrepreneurs need sustenance — sustainability — sustenance to sustain the operation. And sometimes that’s one of the other components that capital or community infrastructure needs. But sometimes it’s just that you can do it through one more iteration. So, there are structural components that we need to understand and iterate and reiterate and pilot and then revise and the pivot in the process of innovating an enterprise. And for that it’s really helpful to have great advisors, a coach, a trainer. But those resources that sustain you so that you’re really a sustainable enterprise. And by that, I don’t mean sustainable in the sense of being resource friendly, environmentally friendly, although that’s good, too. But being able to sustain your work. Those are huge needs.

I think there’s also a sense that social entrepreneurs feel like they can create their own thing and they’re on their own and they’re going to go do it. But actually you need to be part of a supply chain management. So, you need to consider who will be your clients or customers, who will be your suppliers. And the advisor piece is also really important.

So, when I spoke about sustenance to sustain the enterprise as being a need that young entrepreneurs of any age — and I appreciate that insight — need. We all need advisors. And my advice and approach to advising entrepreneurs is to gather people who inspire you from different disciplines and sensibilities than your own. You already have you at the table. So, we don’t need another you, actually. That’s what friends are for. But for your advisors you need someone who knows more than you. You need someone who knows less than you. You need someone who’s more experienced and less experienced, someone who comes from a completely different sector, someone who comes from a different aspect of the business process. And having the courage to invite those people smarter than you around the table with knowledge you don’t have is a really important part of building your team.

Knowledge at Wharton: One final question: What is the best piece of leadership advice that you’ve ever received?

Ayton-Shenker: Oh, that’s great. And I wish I had a really great answer. The best advice I think I’ve ever received wasn’t really advice. The best advice that I return to came from … a colleague of mine, Joy Anderson, who said, “Trust grace to surprise you.” And I love that. As a leader, we think that it’s all about our business management and the skill set that we need to bring up, but I trust that we have that. I trust that a leader is smart and has vision and has skills and has capacity. And then, it’s being open to that magic, the alchemy of serendipity and opportunity when it arises. 

So, if we trust that grace will surprise us, we’re open to that. And as Mary Oliver, the poet, also indirectly advises me by inspiring me with her words — she says in “Instructions for Living a Life” that I think I take as a leader, three things. One, pay attention. And two, be astonished. And three, tell about it. … I think by leading, our leadership is how we tell about what astonishes us from what we se. So, being really present and attentive — to pay attention and then be amazed by what’s around us all the time, and tell about it.