Faculty Spotlight – Jane Wei-Skillern

weiskillern_janeSharing her nearly fifteen years’ of research experience in social entrepreneurship, nonprofit networks, management of nonprofit organizations, Jane Wei-Skillern encouraged students in her “Networks for Impact: Social Innovation’s Next Frontier” class to explore how to catalyze and support networks for social change.

The course was one of Jane’s efforts to spread the word on network leadership, an approach in which various organizations bring their respective expertise to the mission and work alongside each other instead of having every nonprofit organization trying to advance its own institution and programs in order to achieve its mission singlehandedly. To Jane, network leadership is compelling in that by working behind the scenes, in collaboration with, and in support of other organizations, communities, and beneficiaries themselves, nonprofits do not “pretend to know all the answers” and thus get to social impact much more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably.

“It’s not rocket science,” Jane said, “but network leadership is not very easy in the current system, given the way that funding happens and the way supporters and leaders in the field assume that the way to get to the mission impact is to advance the organization first.”  In fact, she noticed that there were countless organizations who, despite having successfully built big brand names, large budgets, and sizable staff, were still far from meeting their missions.

“There needs to be a dramatic change in the way people think about their work and act in service to the mission,” she said.

And Jane has been instigating that change through her research, public speaking engagements for nonprofit professionals, such as through Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and Board Source, and teaching. During her time as a professor at London Business School, Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Haas School of Business UC Berkeley, she said that there has been a growing interest in collaborative approaches. Earlier in her career, there was more of a focus on individual social entrepreneurs and their innovations that involved creating a packaged program to address a specific social issue. However, these so-called “silver bullet” innovations were often limited in their effectiveness because large scale social change is rarely, if ever, achieved through single, one-size-fits-all solutions. Now, Jane sees that more students understand earlier on in their education the complexity of the problems as well as the importance of interacting with organizations quite different from their own to solve those problems. There has also been a tremendous increase in demand among seasoned professionals in the field to learn how to build effective networks.

Although social entrepreneurship in academia has seen progress toward more collaborative, systems level change efforts, network leadership is still more of the exception rather than the norm. In her research, Jane is exploring the skills that are needed to put the ideas of network leadership into practice more readily. In Spring 2015, she plans to convene experienced network leaders to brainstorm on how they can begin to change the culture in philanthropy and social impact work so that it’s less focused on the “hero social entrepreneur” and their program innovations and more focused on working across organization and sector boundaries to build networks for sustained and large scale social impact.

“It’s really exciting to use my platform to share the ideas of network leadership with the world more broadly,” Jane said. “It’s become my passion and I’m thrilled to have the chance to make a contribution to the field.”

What sets Haas apart in terms of social entrepreneurship?

“I think that Haas is a wonderful home for a lot of ideas that I’ve been working on in my research and for what I’ve been teaching in my classes. The Haas defining principles of being willing to always listen and learn, behaving in a humble manner, and thinking beyond yourself are among the critical factors that enable networks for social impact to succeed. There’s no better place than Haas to do this work because these principles are very consistent with the type of leadership the world so desperately needs. When it comes to addressing large scale, complex social and environmental issues, these values are absolutely essential. As the saying goes, “There is no limit to what can be achieved if you don’t care about who gets the credit.”

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