At 19, Sara Damber founded Friends, today Scandinavia’s largest organization in the fight against bullying. Today, as CEO of the Reach for Change Foundation, Sara Damber leads a movement of change for children around the world through social entrepreneurship.
"Five years ago, social entrepreneurship was a virtually unknown concept in Sweden. When I started Reach for Change, then called the Playing for Change Foundation, in 2009, we conducted a survey that showed only a few percent had even heard the term.
Today, after running awareness campaigns and building a movement for social entrepreneurship, 34 percent say they are familiar with the concept – a remarkable change. Interest has also surged in universities, in government and state agencies. It is a strong trend that coincides with a general interest in entrepreneurship as the way of the future."
How did Reach for Change come about?
"Reach for Change is a non-profit organisation founded by the Kinnevik Group to improve the lives of children and youth. We invest in exceptional individuals with unique ideas for social change who have the drive to get things done. Through our Incubator program they are given salary funding for up to three years and coaching by expert advisors the Kinnevik Group companies.
Traditional activists don't always help
Many claim that the idea of social entrepreneurship is contradictory to the famous ‘Swedish model’. But the stereotype of Sweden as a blown up and inefficient welfare state is far from reality. We have a long and strong tradition of social activism, mobilizing people in movements for issues such as child rights and equal rights for women. Sweden also has a century-long tradition of encouraging free enterprise and competition. It is true that social services were not previously driven by the market but this has also changed in the last decades. However, non-governmental organizations combatting social problems have been surprisingly conservative. Most are made after the same pattern; large and member-based entities, set in their ways and increasingly stifled by internal squabbles and a growing bureaucracy. They, more than the public sector, have been opposed to social entrepreneurship and smaller, more businesslike set-ups tackling social problems. I experienced this first-hand when I was very young. Fresh out of high school, I had no track record, nor a network or funds. But I had a vision –that no child should be subjected to bullying – and an idea for how to create change. I was chocked to meet so much resistance and distrust from both local decision makers and traditional activists. They resented me because I did not come in a package they recognized. But rather than discourage me, this made me fight harder. I was convinced then, as now, that one voice can make a difference and that everyone has the potential to create change, be it big or small.
I do not predict, like some, that the old-school NGOs in Sweden will shrivel up and die. Nor do I think that social entrepreneurs always bring entirely new ideas to replace the old. Sometimes, we actually come up with old solutions to new problems, but we often find more creative and innovative ways of getting the job done. We can move faster than the traditionalists and adapt to changing circumstances and needs. In this context, social entrepreneurs are important because they challenge the norm and bring a competitive edge into the non-profit sector. Suddenly, everyone is forced to analyze their programs and results in a more critical way, and become better at communicating. The result may be a new and improved Swedish model, transforming the way we combat social problems that can inspire and contribute to the global movement.
Educating the private sector
Of course, the private sector needs educating and adjusting too. Through Reach for Change we combine the non-profit sector's visionary approach with business professionalism and the public sector's social responsibility. When investing in social entrepreneurs it is fair to expect a return, but mainly in social effects – not in economic profits. The concept is similar to venture capitalism in the sense that we take risks and invest in unproven ideas and people. However, it differs greatly from commercial investments since true social impact for children can take a very long time.
Reach for Change challenges potential social entrepreneurs to take the first step toward change through our annual Call to Action campaign. This kicks off our search and selection process where we encourage individuals to apply to our Incubator program.
Equally important is that the campaign builds public awareness and advocates for social entrepreneurship as a primary tool for realising children’s rights. I believe that our program supports not only the handful of social entrepreneurs selected for the incubator program, but also the thousands of people that apply and are encouraged to express their vision and sharpen their pitch. In that way, we are creating a movement for change. We specifically look for ‘early-stage’ social entrepreneurs with powerful ideas for children.
Since the launch of our foundation in 2010, we have supported more than one million children in three continents. This year we take a new, exciting leap; after launching our programs in Sweden, Ghana and Russia, we are moving into new markets in five countries in Africa. Our growth has been exceptionally fast and smooth thanks to our close collaboration with companies within the Kinnevik group. Starting up in countries such as Russia or DR Congo, we rely on the support and local expertise of our corporate partners. At the same time, Kinnevik’s employees gain knowledge and awareness of children’s rights and social entrepreneurship, the core of its CSR programs and strategies.
I believe that social entrepreneurship is a primary tool for creating lasting, systematic change for children. To see an idea come to life and achieve real impact constantly renews my strength to continue. And as long as millions of children around the world are denied a safe and happy childhood, I have no choice but to continue my work.