The 21st century requires leaders who can navigate the unknown in an ever-changing world

Chapter 1

Why Focus on Leadership

Challenges of poverty are not easy to solve. Markets have little incentive to be more inclusive and governments are overwhelmed or negligent. Well-intentioned individuals or organizations have tried to build universal playbooks or solutions in a box, but these have not stood the test of time. Today’s complex challenges require a long-term commitment to changing the goals, structures, and rules of existing systems to build a world where everyone has an opportunity to live a life of dignity.

We need leaders who are rooted in moral imagination, showing self-awareness, resilience, grit, authenticity, integrity, and a willingness to learn from feedback and failures. We need leaders who don’t pity the poor, nor do they romanticize them. They ground their work in our shared humanity.

We need leaders who can navigate the unknown in an ever-changing world. Individuals who can bridge divides between rich and poor, the public and private sectors, global and local, shareholders and stakeholders. We need moral leaders with an entrepreneurial mindset, the ability and willingness to bring diverse actors together, to solve problems with people (not for them) and to shift systems by mobilizing multiple stakeholders to drive change.

Fortunately, high-potential change agents are emerging everywhere. We have an opportunity to empower them as individuals, build connections, and deepen relationships across populations, sectors and geographies to create a powerful global ecosystem for change. We believe fellowship is as important as leadership because together we can achieve much more than any one of us can accomplish alone.

What We’ve Created

In 2006, we set out to create a powerful set of tools and experiences for emerging leaders in the social sector. We started a Fellows Program, first a global one and then programs in East Africa, Pakistan, India, and as of 2018, in Colombia and West Africa. During their first year, Fellows remain in their jobs while taking part in five week-long seminars (25 days total). Over the last two years, we’ve combined the deep in-person moral leadership curriculum with virtual interactions and coursework between seminars. Fellows receive training, practical tools and the space to explore their own leadership journeys while connecting with innovators across Acumen’s local and global communities. After their first year, we create communities of practice that enable the Fellows to hone the skills, behaviors and attitudes that will accelerate the rate at which they create change.

Our Fellows are entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and organization builders, and we stand 546 Fellows strong. We supplement our tools and experiences on moral leadership with courses that we offer on +Acumen, which include hard skills.

We created +Acumen in 2014, and it has become the world’s largest online course library for the social sector. Our courses have reached over 400,000 learners from 192 countries, enabling them to become more active and effective at disrupting the systems that keep people trapped in poverty. We’ve partnered with experts on topics such as human-centered design (, systems practice (The Omidyar Group), changing customer behavior (Dan Ariely, Duke University), and measuring social impact (Lean Data). +Acumen develops online learning experiences that focus on creating transformative mindsets, so that learners can foster the use of new knowledge to adapt to changing conditions. For example, Sabrina Premji and Afzal Habib took +Acumen’s Lean Startup Course when they founded Kidogo, an organization bringing low-cost, high-quality childcare and education to Kenya’s slums, while Virginia Hamilton helped the U.S. Department of Labor reevaluate and improve its methods to better serve unemployed Americans through +Acumen’s Human-Centered Design course. +Acumen was an early online learning platform for the social sector with a unique approach - create an active, engaged community which allows continuous learning.

Now, with 12 years of experience under our belt, we’re setting out to create a global university reimagined to better equip today’s leaders to address the complex and interconnected needs of society. Over the next five years, we will build a vanguard of 10,000 moral leaders that will drive the transition to a more inclusive, sustainable society. This University will be geographically distributed, deliberately diverse, locally rooted and globally connected. It will be focused on building the character, skills, and networks to solve problems of poverty in the 21st century.

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