Skip to main content

Karen Proctor. That’s why.
Among other things, Karen Proctor is a strategic advisor to social impact leaders, with a background in public policy analysis and non-profit governance. And she teaches Collaborative Leadership at DSI.

DSI: What is design for social innovation?

Design is the method through which problems can be addressed and solved with people working together. For me, it’s truly problems to be solved sustainably, and I don’t mean sustainably in terms of economic or environment sustainability, but for problems to really be solved, it takes people working together. That’s a very long-winded way of saying…design for social innovation is really about a method for solving.

DSI: What would you like to say to potential students about DSI, and about the class you teach?

What I’ve observed and experienced, is DSI offers a transformative space for learning and creating. The creativity that the faculty and the students bring is part of the culture of DSI. The level of skill, creativity, knowledge, and collective experiences are used for exploration and learning. It’s a transformative opportunity for the students to focus on issues they’re concerned about, and say you know what, we can do better.

For my class, Collaborative Leadership, we enjoyed collaborating on the creation of an enterprise, and developing the leadership skills that it takes to build an enterprise and be a leader within. The students went through the process of creating, from idea to a viable prototype of a business. Working together they learned to really flush out the idea – creating an enterprise from start to finish.

I focus on collaborative leadership because I think in the social impact space you have to know how to work alongside others in order to really affect the common good. It takes people across divisions, silos, and the things that humans normally put up as constraints. Particularly when you’re working in a social impact space, different sectors have to collaborate.

DSI: What are other qualities that you think are important for leaders, especially within the social innovation sector to have?

Collaborative leadership requires a number of capacities and then competencies. In my course, we define leadership as a process of taking a group of followers from point A to point B. It allows anybody to lead, because it’s not incumbent on certain qualities or characteristics of a person. It’s a process. The leader determines what process are we going to follow, and then has to be able to work with colleagues to set the course, guide, and navigate people through the different steps and turns along the way. All those things go into what makes a leader who not only comes up with great ideas to solve problems, but has the capacity to see what it’s going to take to solve the problem, and the wherewithal to work with whomever and however to solve it. It’s a problem-solving business.

DSI: Can you talk a little bit about your background and the work that you do?

I have spent the majority of my career working in corporate America in the social impact space. For 25 plus years I was the chief social responsibility officer for many different companies. I worked in radio, television, sports, and then I worked in media. I’ve worked in publishing, and now I have my own social innovation firm. So my background really is in many different names like public affairs, corporate social responsibility, and corporate social citizenship.

That’s what I’ve done and I enjoy doing, what I know I’m called to do. I love messy problems. I love collaboration because it’s really hard to collaborate with different groups and different interests. You’ve got to find the commonalities and the things that people agree upon. You’ve got to allow different entities to use what they bring to the table, whether it’s thinking or resources in order to solve the problem. It’s hard, people understate how difficult it really is to collaborate well and effectively, and it takes time.

DSI: Are there any specific projects that you can talk about?

What I love now is the variety of the work that I do with my clients. One day I can be with a client in Haiti working on patient education transformation, and the next day I could be in New York City working with a client on how to provide more opportunities and access for children to museums and cultural institutions. It’s exciting and I’m challenged and learning which is what I enjoy about SVA. It takes a lot of time to prepare for my classes. I told the students last year that I feel like I’m learning right alongside them.

DSI: One of the things that we talked a lot about is collaboration. What do you think are the most important things to keep in mind when you’re collaborating, especially with people from different backgrounds or different areas?

Being an active and engaged learner so that information can be shared. It’s important to understand all the available perspectives as much as one can, because the solution tends to be in the all. Innovation is often an interdisciplinary mix of something. You have to be humble enough to set aside ego, so that you can put on the table what you know, and then be willing to listen, curate, and cultivate a solution. A lot of times this work is not…at least for me, rooted and grounded in benevolence. It’s rooted and grounded in the fact that humans have the answers to the problems that humans create.

I believe that often when we’re working in communities, the communities know what needs to be done and they know what they want to get done, but often we don’t tap into that community knowledge to facilitate their navigation towards the a solution. There’s the humility, there’s the sensitivity, there’s the listening, and there’s the transparency that’s necessary so that people know what each other’s agendas are. It’s all of these things that ultimately will either hinder or help the collaboration from going forward.

DSI: Could you offer some advice to young people who are starting in the world of social innovation?

I believe in purpose. I believe that we’re all created for a purpose, and if you’re in this program understanding this is critical. Passion and purpose are connected. I tend towards education because I cannot stand to see what under-educated, or a lack of education does to communities and individuals.

I think that there’s a selflessness that has to come into play here, because you’re really working in service of something else. I’ve seen people do their best work when they can put themselves aside, because that’s how you come around the table. Even if people don’t know what specifically they want to do, you have to be open to that exploration. It takes time to find ones space, this field or discipline is still developing.

You need to work hard because a lot of people aren’t willing to. I think there’s a misnomer that “I’m just going to come in and I’m going to study this and I’m going to learn how to do this.” It’s hard. It’s hard. And you’ve got to be willing to dig in, dig deep, root causes. All of these things require a lot of work, energy, and effort, but the flip side is it’s extremely rewarding when things do take root and changes happens. There are a lot of things that we can do to make life better for a lot of people. But first we have to decide that that’s what we really want to do.

Sign up for the latest news from
Design For Social Innovation
Email Signup
Back to Top