Testing social entrepreneurs cherished assumptions

The genesis of my research project occurred at the end of piloting my own innovation; the Community Capacity Builders Community Leadership Program (CCB CLP).  The CCB CLP is an active citizenship program based on education for sustainable development principles that embeds in government infrastructure.  The program was piloted with the City of Onkaparinga, South Australia in 2006/2007 and the evaluation of this pilot found all participants had gained skills and knowledge to develop collaborative community capacity building projects, to bridge their activities and projects to the strategic plans of governments and governance structures, and to participate in community governance visioning and planning processes.

Social entrepreneurs generally act on a sense of faith that the theories and assumptions underpinning their innovation holds and their innovation is achieving its desired impact (Wei-Skillern et al., 2007, p. 331).  At the end of my program’s pilot I began to question the validity of assumptions and theories underpinning the CLP.  While the program had achieved its desired learning outcomes there was little evidence that program graduates would be able to put this learning into practice after completing the program in order to achieve CCB desired impact of developing strong active communities that can effectively manage change and development.

Given key elements of education for sustainability are incorporated into the CLP it was assumed that assumptions underpinning education for sustainability would also underpin the CLP.   There are two education for sustainability assumptions whose validity are critical for achieving CCB desired impact; education for sustainability is a transformative process that enables program graduates to become active participants and decision-makers in change processes (Tilbury and Wortman, 2004, p. 9), and education for sustainability graduates are able to influence the organisations and the wider society they interact with (Tilbury, 2007, p. 117).

A quick look at the literature confirmed my concerns.  Insights from de Weerd et al. (2005) and Brinkerhoff (2006a) bring into question the ability of the CLP to enable graduates to become active participants and decision makers in change process.  According to de Weerd et al. (2005, p. vii) there is little evidence citizenship education programs have an impact on active citizenship practice and Brinkerhoff (2006a) considers there to be little evidence that training in general leads to valuable performance results.

Insights from Brinkerhoff also bring into question the ability of CLP graduates to influence the organisations and the communities they interact with as according to Brinkerhoff (2006a, p. 304; 2006b, p. 22;) their ability to influence will depend on a complex range of system factors.  This insight from Brinkerhoff (2006b) also caused me to question if individual social entrepreneurs can create pattern-breaking, systemic change.  If as Brinkerhoff (2006b) suggests, there are many factors at work in addition to a social entrepreneur’s innovation, how can an individual social entrepreneur ensure the impact of their innovation is not being impeded or enhanced by a complex range of system factors.  Brinkerhoff’s insights prompted me to explore social entrepreneurship through a complexity theory lens during my PhD.

Wei-Skillern et al. (2007) suggests social entrepreneurs should occasionally undertake a research project to test their cherished assumptions and theories.  My PhD research project has enabled me to test the two education for sustainability assumptions underpinning the CLP by answering the question: ‘How does participation in the CCB CLP impact on the community leadership practice of participants and on the practices of the groups, organisations, and communities that program participants interact with?’

As the ability of CCB CLP graduates to have an impact on strengthening communities could be influenced by a complex range of factors, my inquiry also sought to identify these factors by answering the question: ‘What are the enabling factors and blocking factors impacting on the ability of graduates to implement and disseminate the principles contained within the program?’

Finally, to determine if CCB can increase its desired impact my research project aimed to answer a third question: ‘Do interventions need to be developed to amplify the enabling factors and dampen the blocking factors that are identified?’

Nineteen CCB CLP graduates have participated in my research project.  These graduates were interviewed biannually for 2 ½ years and transcripts of their interviews were coded using NVivo 8 software.  At the end of the data collection stage a report containing the identified enabling and blocking factors was distributed to the graduates and City of Onkaparinga staff, and a focus group was facilitated with graduates and City of Onkaparinga staff to generate ideas to strengthen the identified enabling factors and dampen the identified blocking factors.

My research has uncovered that while the CCB CLP has had a significant impact on the active citizenship practice of individual graduates, it has been difficult for graduates to influence the organisations and the wider society they interact with and to be active participants and decision-makers in systemic change processes.  The research project is using the pragmatic process of inquiry approach of converting the elements of the original situation into the unified model (Dewey, 1938, p. 104) most likely to achieve the inquiry’s aim (Eames, 1977, p. 69) of increasing CCB impact to determine how best to overcome the blocking factors identified during the project.


Brinkerhoff, RO. (2006 a), ‘Increasing impact of training investments: an evaluation strategy for building organizational capacity’, Industrial and Commercial Training, vol. 38, no. 6, pp. 302-307.

Brinkerhoff, R.O. (2006 b), Telling Training’s Stories: Evaluation Made Simple, Credible, and Effective, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.

de Weerd, M., Gemmeke, M., Rigter, J, and van Rij, C. (2005), Indicators for Monitoring Active Citizenship and Citizenship Education, Research Report for the European Commission, Regioplan, Amsterdam.

Dewey, J. (1938), Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, Henry Holt and Co., New York.

Eames, S. M. (1977). Pragmatic naturalism: An introduction, SIU Press, Carbondale.

Tilbury, D. (2007), ‘Learning Based Change for Sustainability’ in A.E.J. Wals (ed.), Social learning: towards a sustainable world, Wageningen Academic Publishers, Wageningen, pp. 117-132.

Tilbury, D. & Wortman, D. (2004) Engaging People in Sustainability, Commission on Education and Communication, IUCN, Gland and Cambridge.

Wei-Skillern, J., Austin, J., Leonard, H. and Stevenson, H. (2007), Entrepreneurship in the Social Sector, London: Sage Publications


Sharon Zivkovic is the Principal Facilitator of Community Capacity Builders, and a Research Assistant and PhD student with the School of Education, University of South Australia.  Sharon has an Undergraduate degree in Accountancy, a Graduate Certificate in Research Commercialisation, a Graduate Diploma in Education (Education and Training of Adults), and a Masters degree in Entrepreneurship.  Prior to establishing Community Capacity Builders, Sharon held positions in the non-profit, private and public sectors.  In 2001, Sharon received the Enterprising Woman of the Year Award in recognition of her contribution towards creating strong and enterprising communities.

Email contact: sharon@communitycapacity.edu.au


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