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12 podcasts that social innovators can't afford to miss

From Tony Loyd to Tiny Spark, tuning into these podcasts is essential for any innovator
July 28, 2021

If you’re a social entrepreneur looking for your next listen, we’ve got a line-up for you. These recommendations are sourced from our global community of social innovators who are tuning in to ignite new ideas, adapt in evolving environments, and stay up-to-speed on the latest in social innovation.

Whether you’re new to the social impact sphere or an industry veteran thinking about starting your own show, these 12 podcasts will transport and transform your thinking.

1. Stanford Social Innovation Review

If you can’t make it to Stanford University to attend their conferences on social innovation, the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s podcast is the next best thing. They often slice audio recordings of their events into episodes that let you listen from anywhere in the world.
Social media platforms have become arenas for mobilizing ideas — they've fueled partnerships between the media industry and nonprofit sector, allowing change campaigns to disseminate stories surrounding human rights, poverty, climate change, and other crucial social issues. This influx of advocacy-driven content was a focal point of SSIR's 2019 Nonprofit Management Institute conference to help nonprofits double their reach and deepen their impact with the help of storytelling.
In the "Storytelling and Social Change" episode, writer, producer and actress, Jessica Blank speaks with Nicole Starr, vice president for social impact at Participant Media; Marya Bangee, executive director of Harness; and Courtney Cogburn, associate professor at Columbia University School of Social Work. These three professionals speak volume to what it takes to shape narratives and create campaigns that inspire cultural, behavioral, and policy change. No time to listen? No problem — Acumen Academy’s Storytelling Guide is a quick hit alternative.
Another one of our favorite episodes was with Zia Khan, vice president for initiatives and strategy at the Rockefeller Foundation. This podcast catches him in conversation with Johanna Mair, academic editor at SSIR. He discusses why the foundation spends time on reframing problems and how they’ve evolved to take a “systems view” of social issues. Among the fun facts, he shares, we learn that Zia has a PhD in fluid dynamics and believes that hookworms led to a radical shift in how the Rockefeller Foundation thought about strategy, nearly 100 years ago. 

2. Gimlet Creative's Open for Business podcast

Gimlet Creative’s Open for Business podcast explores how to build a business from the ground up. They describe it as: “the stuff no one tells you, the stuff you wish you knew, the stuff you should know when you’re starting a company.” Season 1 sets the foundation through six essential episodes and Season 2 goes even deeper to explore critical questions entrepreneurs wish they’d been clued in on.
The “Surviving Failure” episode paints the familiar startup struggle of going all-in on an idea, only to have the cards fall out of favor. In this episode, the flop landed on a company with a $50 million dollar valuation, teaching Jamin Jantz, Founder and CEO of Zaarly that there is truly no shortcut to success.
Don’t stop listening here though, you can follow up this foundation with the a16z’s episode on “Heroes & Myths in Entrepreneurship” which equates entrepreneurs as trailblazers following a hero's journey: there’s a driving purpose, tests of strength, and a distant horizon. Although, Guy Raz, co-creator, and editorial director of 3 NPR programs, including the groundbreaking "How I Built This" podcast observes that the journey never follows a clean or clear storytelling arc. Stories of success are filled with “sleepless nights, anxiety-ridden fears, moments of real despair and failure,” he adds. But Raz speaks to the importance of balancing optimism and pessimism, looking toward possibility, and telling stories that push progress. 
Another favorite episode is the “Price is Right” which explains the strategies entrepreneurs can use for setting prices—and why this can be so hard. If social entrepreneurs follow up this podcast by listening to a16z’s show on “Pricing, Pricing, Pricing,” they will emerge with a solid understanding for how to set the price of a new product or service and approach sales. You’ll learn firsthand from Mark Cranney, head of the go-to-market practice for startups at Andreeson Horowitz (one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms) about how founders should set prices, especially in category-creating businesses like many of the social enterprises Acumen invests in
Want to go even deeper with like-minded leaders to apply Silicon Valley solutions to the social sector? We’ve got you covered in our free Lean Startup Principles for Social Impact course

3. Tiny Spark: Investigating the business of doing good

Tiny Spark is a great starting point for social innovator podcast newbies. Amy Costello, a hard-hitting journalist who has worked for the BBC, PRI and PBS television hosts the show. She cut her teeth producing a widely viewed PBS documentary called “Troubled Water” which uncovered the ineffectiveness of Playpump, a water technology deployed across Africa that was previously hailed as a breakthrough innovation by many members of the international donor community. This experience became the ‘spark’ for her podcast. Amy poses crucial questions to guests who offer their first-hand accounts of grappling with the unintended consequences of nonprofits, international aid, and philanthropy. Amy is no cynic though, her aim is sourcing solutions to global problems by pressing her guests to provide insight into what went wrong and where to go from here.
In the episode titled “The Humanitarian Sector Needs to Value African Women,” she speaks with a trio of African feminists who detail the role of women and local communities on the frontlines of COVID-19 and the deep dissonance of what humanitarian aid claims to do and what it actually does. 
Another good listen is, NPR Reporter Exposes Charity’s Failings” where Amy has a conversation with Laura Sullivan, an investigative journalist for NPR, about what went wrong with the Red Cross’s work in Haiti. “I think that the numbers aren’t pretty, and I think they know that Americans would be frustrated by them,” Laura reveals.

4. Doin the Work: Frontline stories of social change

Doin the Work is a podcast grounded in grit, spotlighting the work of ‘real people,’ addressing ‘real issues.’ Host Shimon Cohen is the founder of The PR Office — a London-based international public relations agency specialising in nonprofit and community. Cohen gets granular in many of his episodes, discussing locally rooted responses to global problems.
In “Healing Trauma Through Community - Building in Little Village” Cohen sits down with professionals from Enlace Chicago — a nonprofit focused on community building, counseling, conflict mediation, restorative justice, and youth empowerment. Enlace’s practitioners discuss everyday life in Little Village — a hardworking Latinx community in Chicago where a majority of people are trapped in a vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty. When the COVID-19 crisis emerged, Little Village was disproportionately affected with a large population of essential workers, high unemployment, and an inability to access mental health resources. This episode ignites key dialogue about community resilience in the face of adversity, the power of youth, anti-adultism, and what leadership looks like in today’s world. 

5. Invisibilia 

Hosted by super duo Hanna Rosin and Alix Spiegel, NPR’s Invisibilia offers six stunning seasons of episodes engaging with empathy, the human experience, and the biggest existential questions of our time. Their most recent season coined “Seven Hail Marys” focuses on ordinary people who come up with  improbable solutions to address dire issues.
“Two Heartbeats a Minute” is an episode that is a particularly powerful exploration of the climate crisis. Climate change can be an abstract issue to grapple with, with it’s perceived proximity perpetuating inaction. Unlike a protest, people struggle to engage with what they cannot see. This episode follows the story of an unlikely group of people who mobilize to tackle one of the world’s most daunting dilemmas using whale sounds, machine learning, and an unrelenting entrepreneurial spirit.
An earlier episode, Flip the Script is also particularly powerful. It looks at how a town in Denmark has tried to use empathy to fight terror. Hanna follows the story of a small town police force in Denmark that decided to build a mentorship program for young men who had fled to Syria to fight rather than crack down on them as terrorists. When they wanted to return to Denmark, the police treated them as troubled young men and offered their families support and services, rather than outright rejection. The program hasn’t had a 100% success rate, but it’s a reminder that there are creative options for dealing with some of the seemingly intractable problems that divide our communities. It’s a good episode to keep in mind whenever you hear news of gun violence and hate that is all too prevalent in the media.

6. ALU - Entrepreneurial Leadership in Africa

Exploring the nexus of entrepreneurship and leadership, this podcast by African Leadership University is an essential listen for anyone chasing the challenge of achieving social change. This is Africa’s first-ever podcast focusing exclusively on African entrepreneurs, business leaders, and boundary pushers who are courageously committed to guiding and advising emerging and aspiring innovators. It’s much needed given that Africa has the highest rate of entrepreneurship in the world - 22% of the working age population is starting a business. ALU delves into agriculture, fintech, mentorship, design thinking, transforming passion to practice, and much more.
One of our favorites is “Building Africa’s Startup Ecosystem” with guest Marcello Shermer, Head of International Expansion at Yoco. Yoco is a company supporting 100,000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in South Africa by providing digital tools and services for more efficient management. Marcello is a growth guru, having traversed over 20 countries in Africa as a Regional Manager at Seedstars World, he offers practical pointers for both established businesses and those just getting started.

7. From What If to What Next

Rob Hopkins is a social entrepreneur, author, and cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network — a movement launched and led by communities to source local solutions to reclaim economies, spark entrepreneurship, foster supportive networks, and stay up to speed on novel skills and techniques demanded by a rapidly evolving planet. His series ‘From What If to What Next‘ asks listeners to send in their most pressing “what ifs,” which he explores in collaboration with contributing social innovators.
Episode 22, “What if we Learned to Embrace Failure” invites insights from social visionary Simon Cohen, who made history when he gave away his £1m company Global Tolerance. Cohen is known for his radical but transformative leadership practices. Also joining the episode is Carlos Zimbrón, Co-Founder and CEO of Fuckup Inc. and WE ARE TODOS. This podcast grapples with what leadership looks like in a post-pandemic world,  “If our leaders model imperfection, real genuine, deep-seated, heart-aching honesty about how things are, it can open an empathetic and compassionate space,” says Simon.
Looking to put more essential leadership practices in your toolbox, grab a seat on Acumen Academy's Path of Moral Leadership course.

8. Social Entrepreneur

Tony Lloyd is a former Fortune 500 executive who is now devoted to giving voice to ordinary, underrepresented individuals focused on fostering inclusive and sustainable solutions to inequity and injustice. His generous conversational style leads people to share their origin stories in the social enterprise field, discuss the innovations they are piloting, and share tips they have learned as they scaled their business. He always ends with an “ask” to the community so that you come away with a concrete sense of how you can support their work or get involved.
Karim Abouelnaga is an Echoing Green Fellow, Forbes 30 under 30 in education awardee, and CEO of Practice Makes Perfect — a public benefit corporation that partners with K-12 schools to narrow the opportunity gap. In this episode, Karim speaks to scaling impact, the quantity and quality tradeoff, and dives even deeper into business modeling and product design in his new book, The Purpose-Driven Social Entrepreneur.
Another Forbes 30 under 30 nominee and visionary is Judith Martinez, CEO of InHerShoes — a nonprofit empowering girls and women of all ages through leadership workshops, and professional development training. Martinez discusses growing up as a first-generation Philipino-American, witnessing her grandmother's hardships which ingrained a sense of justice and equality inside her. Engage with perceptive professionals in this podcast to uncover what values entrepreneurs hold most dearly and deeply. 
Other favorite episodes include Hillary Miller-Wise of Acumen investee Esoko, Alexandra Lafci of New Story (an Acumen Academy course participant) and Sasha Dichter, Acumen’s prior Chief Innovation Officer.

9. The Social Change Career podcast

There’s no roadmap in an attempt to discover one's own definition of ‘success.’ Ensuring your career is one of fulfillment, growth, and financial security, can often seem riddled with U-turns and caution signs but this podcast demystifies the fear of starting. The series spans eight seasons of interviews with exceptional practitioners across a multitude of sectors, exploring how to do good while also making a living.
This podcast holds a space for candid conversations, with one of our favorites being “Connecting Local Knowledge with Peace and Development Initiatives,” which sits down with Dr. Pamina Firchow, Professor of Conflict Resolution and Coexistence at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Dr. Firchow discusses the importance of infusing local knowledge to develop peace and development indicators that seek to improve the provision of aid to populations. These participatory approaches are people-centered, designed to include communities in the decisions that impact their lives.

Dr. Firchow encourages students to approach classes and coursework with patience, understanding, and “an approach to class and discussions in line with dialogue rather than debate.” In other words, keep an open-mind, lean into the discomfort, and push crucial conversions forward.

Got a specific social issue or challenge that you want to focus on tackling? Check out Start Your Social Change Journey, a free course to help you sustain your social impact efforts and keep your goals on track. 

10. This American Life

This American Life is an old favorite amongst loyal radio listeners, but the series frequently trapses beyond U.S. borders. This episode proves why TAL stands alone amongst old and new players in the podcast genre.
In the episode, “Are We There Yet,” and “Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee” a team of reporters travels to Greece to produce two episodes from some of the world’s largest refugee camps. They meet a pair of star-crossed lovers, a mother struggling to protect her teenage son from radicalization, and children who survived the bombing of their houses. While the rest of the world was watching the Olympics, these refugees were living in a former Olympic stadium in Athens. Importantly, the TAL series takes pains to show you how ordinary Greeks—some who are only in their twenties—have stepped up to do the bone-wearying work of managing the camps, manning the phone lines, and opening their towns to refugees. You come away feeling that if people in this small country facing its own financial troubles can do so much to help, you should urgently consider what you can do too. 
Here’s one next step: sign up for our course on adaptive leadership to recognize where small steps can be taken to create change in your community.

11. Startup

Startup will shake up what you thought you knew about launching a business. “Happy Ending” and “From the Cell to the Sell” follows Coss Martin, who’s about to pitch his company alongside five other startups vying for the same funds. Coss is no stranger to the startup grind, as a young entrepreneur he raked in nearly $4 million dollars annually by catering to high-profile lawyers, doctors, and judges. The only difference with his new pitch — it’s legal. Coss’ previous venture landed him seven years behind bars. From felon to founder, Coss shares stories surrounding the launch of his social enterprise and how he’s helping formerly incarcerated individuals get their head start. These mini case studies offer insights into developing an inclusive and equitable global workforce to allow people to pursue lives of dignity. 

12. On Being

We’re big fans of all the conversations hosted by Krista Tippett. But the On Being episode with Elizabeth Gilbert on “Choosing Curiosity Over Fear” stood out, especially since Acumen Academy worked with both Krista and Elizabeth to produce Master Classes on The Art of Conversation and Creativity, respectively.
In this episode of Krista’s radio show we find the two of them engaged in a lively conversation about pursuing a life of curiosity and luminosity. One of our favorite moments? When Liz reveals that she has a tattoo proclaiming ‘stubborn gladness.’ If you need some stubborn gladness to reinvigorate your own work for social change, this episode is a wellspring. We’re also very excited about the new mini-series that Krista’s team debuted this summer called Creating Our Own Lives. Each episode features “the voice of one guest, uninterrupted, responding to a single, clarifying question.”
Emily Close

Emily Close

Emily is a Content Creator at Acumen Academy, where she works alongside social entrepreneurs tackling the toughest issues of inequality, to bring their stories to the forefront and share their solutions with other individuals aspiring to affect social change. You can find Emily building content with her colleagues, bouldering with friends, or buried in a book in one of London’s oldest bookstores.