Social innovation fellowships

From EcoliseWiki

Social innovation fellowships are a proposed mechanism for stimulating and supporting social innovation by providing salaries for people working within local change initiatives who would otherwise be financially unable to support their work. They form part of a suite of policy recommendations in the Lisbon Declaration on social innovation developed within the Social Innovation Community research project.


The idea of social innovation fellowships was put forward by Nenad Maljković in the context of his work coordinating the Climate Innovation Network on behalf of ECOLISE within the Social Innovation Community project. It addresses the need for community-scale action for ecologically and socially regenerative responses to climate change and other key global issues, and the barriers that arise to such action when activists are unable to support their work.[1] It forms part of the wider set of policy recommendations in the Lisbon Declaration released by the project on its conclusion in 2019. A significant inspiration is the Ashoka Fellowship, which provides long-term support to social entrepreneurs working for social good worldwide.[2]


Most community-led initiatives rely on the voluntary labour of a small number of skilled and committed activists, who must therefore reconcile their work with the need to generate an income. Many such people face intense and ongoing personal pressure, living in states of serious financial precarity and/or overwork. Burnout is a common consequence, which forces many people to scale down or abandon their work altogether.

In spite of doing productive, value-adding work, intrinsically motivated activists are often left with little choice but to choose to keep working on their life’s calling while doing low-quality part-time work, or being technically unemployed. In addition, European countries have different rules around unemployment benefits: often the places with the greatest need for this type of community-led activity have the least supportive social protection systems.

Project funding is time-limited, tied to organisational development and project outcomes and often doesn’t cover a whole person’s salary - meaning this approach is insecure and not well suited to the task of setting up and running local change initiatives that are likely to become sustainable in long-term. Project funding also runs the risk of coercive isomorphism, where organisations and projects are shaped more by funders' expectations, application procedures and reporting requirements than the needs of their communities, a well-documented problem in relation to resourcing of community-led initiatives.[3][4][5][6]

Therefore, a fellowship model like this could help free community climate action activists - or other community-led innovators - to focus on doing valuable work, with potentially huge societal and environmental benefits, that up until now has tended to be undervalued or overlooked by traditional employers. Following the precedent of Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowships, Social Innovation Fellowships could be named ‘Diogo Vasconcelos Fellowships’. An alternative branding, a climate action fellowship, was proposed by Nenad at a meeting of ECOLISE staff and members in Brussels in September 2019.

Proposed Format

Social innovation fellowships would take the form of a salary for people working to develop community-led climate adaptation and mitigation initiatives, or other local change initiatives, such as Transition initiatives, ecovillages, community-supported agriculture, community energy initiatives and similar. It would provide a stipend to cover their basic living costs, and so enable them to devote time to leading change in their communities. Training stipends and mentorship supports would also be made available to social innovation fellows and other activists in cases where skills gaps or other learning needs exist. In addition, a budget would be set aside to enable access to literature and multimedia or online learning resources such as MOOCs.

Potential Delivery Mechanisms

The European Commission could invite established organisations with strong community links - such as foundations or Transition hubs - to administer fellowships in their regions. The approach should be piloted and tested in different geographies: it’s likely to have different requirements, potential and outcomes in different places.

Volunteers working on local change initiatives would apply for fellowships. If successful, they would become employees of these organisations on, for example, three-year fixed term contracts - giving them a stable income and the ability to focus full-time on their initiatives.

A variety of models could also be tested. For example, fellowships could be match funded by communities. Or academics could ‘adopt an activist’ - with several universities joining together to co-fund a community activist’s salary, with EU funding matching that. The link with academics would provide a platform for advising, mentoring, documenting and communicating the activists’ work and to build new networks of researchers and activists who might eventually engage in collaborative projects.[7]


  1. Accessed September 30th 2019.
  2. Accessed September 30th 2019.
  3. Becker, S.L., Franke, F., Gläsel, A., 2018. Regime pressures and organizational forms of community-based sustainability initiatives. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 29, 5–16.
  4. Creamer, E., 2015. The double-edged sword of grant funding: a study of community-led climate change initiatives in remote rural Scotland. Local Environment 20, 981–999.
  5. Taylor Aiken, G., 2015. Community number capture. Soundings 58, 81–90.
  6. Taylor Aiken, G., 2014. Common Sense Community? The Climate Challenge Fund’s Official and Tacit Community Construction. Scottish Geographical Journal 130, 207–221.
  7. Pargman, D., 2018. Adopt an Activist. Blog post. Accessed September 30th 2019.