Leadership for a Changing World

Social change leaders see abundant possibility in environments where people operate on the margins of power structures. While often overlooked in leadership studies, social change nonprofits represent a rich and essential resource for civil society in serving as an indicator for the field and reforming broken systems and structures. These efforts toward the common good reflect the human spirit at its best and their leadership is essential for a strong democracy. Yet this work is seldom documented and featured as a source of leadership theory.

Between 2001 and 2010, RCLA at NYU Wagner partnered with the Ford Foundation and the Advocacy Institute*, to document the work of social change organizations and highlight the importance of community leadership in the USA. 

Our work

To better understand social change leadership in American communities, the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World program (LCW) recognized approximately 150 social change leaders from 92 organizations across the country. LCW aimed to push the national conversation about leadership and feature the role of community leadership, appreciating that leadership comes in many forms and from many communities.

RCLA housed the program’s research and documentation component, rooted in the belief that creating a new conversation about leadership required clear descriptions of community leadership in an authentic voice. RCLA developed participatory research opportunities and invited leaders to co-produce knowledge about how grassroots organizations employ strategic leadership practices to make change in the face of serious constraints.

The research used a participatory research approach, including narrative inquiry, ethnographic research, and cooperative inquiry. Main findings include that effective social change leadership:

  • Creates conditions in which participants– independent of their position in the system­– can understand their unique leadership role, feel prepared to take it up, believe in the importance of their contribution in a legitimate cause, and abide by a moral compass agreed upon by the community.
  • Is articulated through a distinct set of “leadership practices” that help these organizations leverage power. These practices cluster into three groups: reframing discourse, bridging difference, and unleashing human energies to open spaces for emergent leadership.
  • Can transcend the mere accomplishment of instrumental goals to awaken the expressive dimension at the core of nonprofit work, but the skills and capacity to manage organizational functions are necessary but not sufficient.

​The results are documented in the reports “Leadership Practices that Transform Scarcity into Abundance”, "How Social Change Organizations Create Leadership Capital and Realize Abundance amidst Scarcity" and "A reflective document from the Leadership for a Changing World Program" These reports include peer-reviewed articles in support of practitioners, a range of curricular resources, and details of related events and presentations. These resources offer an understanding of leadership as a collective achievement and document the participatory research methods that were able to engage community practitioners as genuine partners in discovery.

*The Institute for Sustainable Communities assumed management of LCW in October 2006 when the Advocacy Institute, which had administered the program since 2000, transferred its operations to ISC.


For more information contact Professor Sonia M. Ospina or Amparo Hofmann-Pinilla.