Jessica Lax

Increasing Ashoka U's breadth of impact

4 Keys to Campus Wide Change


It is infinitely harder to change what already exists rather than start from scratch.  This is especially true with long-entrenched cultures, and structures.

On the flip side, the potential for shifting resources within a large, well-respected institution can lead to results on a much larger scale than a start-up. This is the power and potential for leading change within an institutional context.

This potential for impact is one of the key reasons why Marina, Ashoka U’s Executive Director, decided to start Ashoka U within Ashoka in the first place. It’s also why, at Ashoka U, we focus on supporting innovators like yourself – individuals who have decided to change higher education institutions from within.

Over the years, we’ve supported hundreds of innovators to change their campus.  Based on that experience we’ve distilled four key approaches to institutional innovation to help you expand your impact on campus.

1) Align strategy and values

Gaining support from senior leadership is almost always a game changer for any campus change strategy. In the Making the Case cohort of the Ashoka U Commons our coaches work with participants to help them refine a pitch.  This pitch often builds off of the mission statement of your university or college.  It might also include how social innovation aligns with goals stated in strategic plans, or build off of external events that are relevant to your institution. Inflection points – like a drop in student enrollment numbers, or a new president’s desire to make a mark on campus – can serve as opportunities to make a case for social innovation and campus wide change.


  • Hone in on what keeps your senior leader up at night and then present how your changemaking initiative will solve their problem.
  • Build a pitch that uses the broader language, and mission of your institution. Show that you are not just serving your initiative, or your goals, but are in service of the wider institution in achieving its mission.

2) Assess and leverage institutional assets

Once you have buy-in, it is important to realign existing organizational resources and assets to give your initiative the best chance of spreading across campus.

One of the first things we ask our Commons participants to do is perform an eco-system analysis of their campus. This process helps to uncover the full range of assets you can tap into across your institution.

It can also map out the language currently used on your campus to refer to social innovation and changemaking. Choosing inclusive language can help you build bridges on campus.  Spending too much time debating language can make your job ten times harder than it needs to be.  Read the Reality of Terminology: Beyond Definitions post for more on this.

By identifying assets and aligning with the existing culture on campus, your impact can spread significantly faster and build your team in the process.


  • Map key institutional assets: existing initiatives, programs, clubs, networks, funding, or other infrastructure that you will want to tap into.
  • Test and select language for your initiative that resonates with existing campus culture.

3) Activate allies to get things done

Your work won’t go far without a stellar team. The good news is that many people want to be part of new and innovative initiatives.  It’s up to you to show how social innovation connects with their work.

In the Ashoka U Commons cohort, ‘Building Allies’ we focus on how to create a campus wide team. We’ve found that without a team made up of interdisciplinary faculty, students, cross-functional staff, and senior administrators, changemaking efforts remain siloed. Although it might seem faster to work with those who already know and support your work, campus wide change requires individuals who can embed changemaking values into all aspects of your institution.

“Through our work in the Commons, we formed an inter-disciplinary committee at the University of New Brunswick. This committee not only took the lead role in bringing a new course sequence in social innovation to our university but also took on the task of driving social innovation into the culture of our entire ecosystem…”

Karina LeBlanc, Ashoka U Commons participant, Executive Director of the Pond-Deshpande Centre at the University of New Brunswick

Finally, there are also significant benefits of giving your team and extended team an identity.  Giving titles and rewards for supporting the initiative can go a long way. Incentives that have worked on other campuses include public recognition, curriculum-development grants, offering to buy-out faculty time to focus on new efforts, awards for innovation and leadership, and designated research funding.


  • Always be on the lookout for talent, alliances, and ways to collaborate to get your work done.
  • Be intentional. Invite people for coffee and arrange individual meetings to cultivate trust and understanding in your relationships.
  • Think about titles or other incentives you can use to recognize individuals who have participated in and supported the initiative.

4) Manage success to a double bottom line

Choose a short timeline, like a single year, to evaluate the initial success of your initiative. The number of faculty working with you, student participation numbers, or media mentions are all useful proxy indicators. These indicators should help you gauge whether your strategy has the effect you set out to achieve.

(Stay tuned for more on measuring the effect of your social innovation initiative when we release our impact evaluation toolkit later this year).

You also need to ensure that there is a clear “win” for the senior leaders who supported your institutional innovation. For example, The University of San Diego was able to measure that 40% of students listed social impact and USD’s changemaker education lens as a key motivation for applying. Tracking and presenting this kind of data makes a compelling case for your work to senior leadership, and shows how your initiative is benefitting the institution as a whole. By balancing this dual perspective of success, you are ensuring long-term relevance and sustainability.


  • Always be ready to be called into the president’s office to articulate the value of your work and how it is making your institution more successful.
  • Identify specific value propositions your initiative brings to the institution, and articulate the qualitative and quantitative impact of your work.
  • Be proactive in sending updates and keep your “champions” in the loop so they can be armed with news, data points and success stories to share with senior leadership and external partners.


Ready to put these strategies in action? Join The Ashoka U Commons and get the support and structure you need.  You will get full access to Ashoka U’s online learning environment, best practice spotlight calls, group and one on one calls with your experienced coach, and the chance to connect with a hand-picked group of peers.  Get the details here.