Re-Framing Social Change: What questions should guide today’s NGO Leaders and social entrepreneurs?

Popular mythology concerning them notwithstanding, any effort to come to grips with the purposes and desired outcomes of today’s nonprofit and nongovernmental (NGO) organizations requires a thorough examination of the complexity of the problems they face, the social systems in which they operate and the tensions that exist among the aims that animate them. Nonprofit and NGO leaders particularly, are expected to empower communities to identify gaps between their current and desired states of being, to ask the right questions, and to develop networks that resource, implement and evaluate progress toward individual and scalable change.

This reflection argues that nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations are charged with creating social change by addressing wicked problems. That is, nonprofits are expected to develop the strategies and obtain the resources necessary to design and implement intentional, collaborative, values-based activities or ongoing processes that seek to advance groups, communities, social structures, and services and that result in increased social capital and resilience.

The challenges facing leaders within the sector are ever changing. However, identifying and understanding the types of problems NGO leaders and social entrepreneurs must address provides scholars and practitioners with a framework in which to support their efforts to create lasting change. Such awareness is vital lest our society fall into a complacency born of an unwillingness to address creatively and collectively the issues we must confront. As John Gardner (as cited by Wren, 1995) has warned:

Could it be that we suppress our awareness of problems — however ominous — because we have lost all conviction that we can do anything about them? . . . Suppose that our institutions have become so lacking in adaptiveness that they can no longer meet new challenges? (p. 5)

Grint (2005) has argued that the types of challenges many NGOs now face may be characterized as wicked problems —they are more than complicated.  They are complex, novel, intractable, poorly structured, without any apparent solution and they have no clear endpoint (Grint, 2005).  That is, these concerns, including poverty and addiction and mental illness, for example, have no known “solutions.” Moreover, such “solutions” as are developed to address them often generate other ‘problems’ without obvious solutions. This scenario should lead prudent leaders not to abandon their aims, but instead to realize that what they are seeking is “just better or worse alternatives” (Grint, 2005, p. 1473).

Gardner (1995) and Grint (2005) have both suggested that as the uncertainty of the problem and potential strategies to address it multiply, leaders are required to ask more and better questions.  As Grint (2005) has observed, “The leader’s role with a wicked problem is to ask the right questions rather than provide the right answers because the answer may not be self-evident and will require a collaborative process to make any kind of progress (p. 147).  Meanwhile, Gardner (1995) has asked whether our society any longer possesses the shared social mettle to confront the complexity that accompanies social change efforts noting, “I do not find the problems themselves as frightening as the questions they raise concerning our capacity to gather our forces and act” (p. 4).  Gardner’s (1995) emphasis on the imperative to stimulate collective action and the necessity of ensuring a popular willingness and capacity to address big questions and wicked problems without expecting that these will shortly cede to technical or other solutions, neatly captures the environment in which NGOs and social entrepreneurs presently find themselves.

Social entrepreneurs serve as catalysts for change by deconstructing targeted problems and framing initiatives to address them focused on human needs and relationships. Critical to the success of the social entrepreneur is an understanding of the complex networks in which relevant stakeholders are enmeshed and a disciplined discovery process that remains focused and open to both small scale and sweeping change.

The systems in which change may be catalyzed are embedded in issue networks that are “designed to deal with a problem — drug abuse or domestic violence or homelessness — rather than a person” (Goldsmith, 2010, p. 28).  Shifting the frame from such “problems” to people, and engaging stakeholders in hearing, understanding, and responding to individual and collective voices, is essential to securing sustainable social change

Today’s NGO leaders must balance the claims that come along with our cultural devotion to individualism, garner and manage resources effectively, discern allies and possibilities, collaborate appropriately to promote shared action, ensure accountability to donors and other funders and define and measure success meaningfully and transparently as they press initiatives. And this list is hardly exhaustive. Leaders operating in this reality must demonstrate perseverance, vision, commitment, patience and vulnerability.  None of these is easy to attain and there are surely tensions among them as aspirations, but all have been made more difficult to achieve as the nonprofit sector has shifted its focus to systems that, in many cases, undermine an essential focus on individual needs in society.

During the coming years, nonprofit leaders will need to develop and employ new strategies and continue to ask hard questions in order to ensure the sector’s capacity to address the complex and often wicked challenges wrought by continuous social change. What questions are the right questions for these purposes?  What questions have gone unasked and unanswered regarding the state of NGOs, communities, and social entrepreneurship?  What must be true for a deeper, richer dialogue to begin or continue in pursuit of lasting social change?

What questions will you ask?


Frumkin, P. (2002). On Being Nonprofit: A conceptual and policy primer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gardner, J. W. (1995). “The Cry for Leadership” in Wren, The Leader’s Companion (pp.3-7).  New York, NY: The Free Press.

Goldsmith, S. (2010). The Power of Social Innovation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass     Publishers.

Grint, K. (2005). Leadership: Limits and Possibilities. London: PalgraveMacmillan.

Light, P. C. (2011). Driving Social Change. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Wren, J.T. (1995).  Ed. A Leader’s Companion: Insights on Leadership through the Ages.
New York, NY: The Free Press.


Sarah is a second year Ph.D. student in Agricultural & Extension Education and is the Graduate Assistant for the Residential Leadership Community. Her academic and research interests include leadership studies, problem solving, and nonprofit management.

Prior to returning to graduate school, Sarah enjoyed eight years as a leader within the YMCA movement, including four years as an executive director. In addition to her academic pursuits, Sarah serves as a member of the Community Voices team, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children in the New River Valley, and an active member of Northstar Church, as well as several professional organizations.

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