Global Innovation for Impact Lab

The Global Innovation for Impact Lab at Stanford PACS (GIIL) develops and shares knowledge on social innovation and organizational strategies that is portable across geographies, sectors and issue domains.

Lab directors Johanna Mair and Christian Seelos study why and how organizations innovate and how differences in their processes and their organizational context generate positive and negative consequences.

GIIL addresses three core problems in the social innovation space:

  1. a lack of solid evidence on the potential of social innovation for positive impact;
  2. a divide between scholarly work and practitioner needs, and
  3. unproductive learning that stifles knowledge accumulation.

Through research partnerships with foundations, government and multilateral agencies, organizations in the social and private sector, and academic institutions, the Lab develops diagnostic tools and publishes its research findings both in scholarly journals as well as in practice-oriented outlets such as PACS Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). Tools and publications are shared through this website, and at in-person workshops, salons, and public events.

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The Global Innovation For Impact Lab, launched in 2017 at Stanford PACS, is an evolution of the decade-plus long international research project, Organizational Capacity for Continuous Innovation (OCCI). Johanna and Christian are based in Berlin, Germany, and can be reached by contacting Stanford PACS


Despite increased attention to social innovation across the public, social and business sectors, we lack a solid basis of evidence and understanding of the characteristics and consequences of innovation processes in social sector organizations. The divide between scholarly work and concrete needs for localized knowledge by organizations continues to stifle the practical value of research. A desire to publish or to enact measurable impact stifles long-term investment into clarifying perspectives, adopting clear language and concepts, exploring the multi-facetted nature of social problems, and bridging different perspectives to enable long-term cumulative learning journeys.

The hallmark of GIIL activities is a critical and constructive engagement with social innovation from an organizational perspective. This engagement includes related topics such as scaling and systems change and explores the role and potential of social innovation for positive impact. A critical review in these areas allows us to separate fantasy from fact and real opportunities from mere hopes. We evaluate the substance behind topics such as innovation or systems change. These topics are often taken-for-granted in an unreflective manner. Our critical perspective facilitates productive decisions by funders, entrepreneurs and established service providers, public and private sectors, and consultancies.

The founding directors of GIIL, Johanna Mair and Christian Seelos, are orchestrating new research programs that build on their extensive experience researching private- and social-sector organizations over two decades. Both directors have received awards for the scholarly and practical value of their research and for their teaching activities at post-graduate and executive levels. In addition to developing new research and educational tools and activities, GIIL will bridge continental and sectoral divides to configure people, ideas, and resources into productive opportunities for generating useful knowledge and enacting positive impact.

Path to Impact

GIIL develops knowledge on social innovation and organizational strategies that is portable across geographies, sectors and issue domains.

  • We develop knowledge that is relevant for practice and at the same time has the potential to advance or recast existing knowledge. For example, we study why and how different organizations enact innovation and how these differences generate positive and negative consequences for organizations and their stakeholders.
  • We convene events and organize exchanges between research and practice to generate, reflect on, and disseminate knowledge. For example, we organize a number of salons for smaller groups of senior foundation and social sector leaders in the USA, Europe, and Asia as well as larger audiences such as those at Stanford PACS’ signature event, the Philanthropy Innovation Summit.
  • We interact with strategic partners such as foundations, government and multilateral agencies, and organizations in the social and private sector to define relevant areas for research and develop a joint learning experience. For example, we work directly with several leading social enterprises to understand the architecture for strategic learning and for building their capacity for productive innovation.
  • We build partnerships with leading academic institutions. For example, we leverage institutional ties to the Knowledge Initiative on Organisations and Society at the Hertie School of Governance, the Social Innovation and Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School and several institutions in Europe and Asia such as the Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden), the University of Leuven (Belgium), the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford (UK), the Sekem Academy (Egypt), the BRAC University (Bangladesh), the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (India) to conduct research in a collaborative spirit and to empower the next generation of scholars and educators.

Current Strategic Initiatives

  • Organizational capability for continuous innovation 3.0

We are finishing research on the third phase of our signature research program that explores an organization’s capability for continuous innovation (OCCI). Originally funded by the Rockefeller Organization (OCCI 1.0 and 2.0) and subsequently by one of the largest European foundations (OCCI 3.0), we have reached a major milestone with the publication of a book that synthesizes insights from 15 years of field research: Innovation and Scaling for Impact – How Effective Social Enterprises do it. In the next years, we will continue to expand and to validate this knowledge base by engaging with various audiences in the social-, public-, and for-profit-sectors. We also wish further to contextualize our research by contrasting and comparing Asian, European, and US-based organizations. We have developed a number of diagnostic instruments that help improve strategic decisions on innovation and scaling by organizations and their funders and we seek to finetune and test the usefulness and validity of these instruments in various contexts and with different audiences.

  • Organizations as Agents of Systems Change

We are exploring the potential and limits of organizations to enact and productively to steer systems change. This research program perceives systems as instrumental elements of effective change strategies enacted primarily by single organizations. By identifying the boundaries and causal architecture of systems, we intend to develop the conceptual tools of effective system strategies, to validate and expand these tools through empirical research, and to synthesize and translate our findings into useful insights for social sector practitioners and funders. These strategies will enable single organizations, including conglomerates that consist of multiple elements under an organizational umbrella, to develop capacity and capability for effective change.

  • Pioneer Foundations

This initiative seeks to support, bridge and to build a learning community amongst Europe-based foundations that are enacting radically new practices and strategies in their organizations. We seek to create a safe space and build a trusted platform that facilitates an honest and open reflection on ongoing strategy implementation in a small group of foundation leaders. We also intend to bridge this community with audiences and foundations that are trusted partners of PACS in the US and in China.

  • The Challenges of Relational Problem Spaces

Much innovation in the social sector addresses technical problems – those problems that are constituted and sustained by economic and cognitive factors. Health, education, microfinance, water, energy are examples of technical innovations for technical problems. Relational problems are those that are created and sustained by how people relate to each other, in private relationships such as husband and wife or community relationships such as the cast system in Indian villages. Relational problems are constituted by powerful norms, traditions and power and dependency structures that marginalizes people based on gender or social class. We have started to explore the nature and mechanisms of relational problems and have identified a key mechanism, scaffolding, that enables a transformation of relational problems to enact new possibilities. We are currently engaged with various actors in the problem space of modern slavery that cuts across private-sector, public and social-sector domains. We know little about how and with which prospects innovations may target this problem space. This initiative seeks to engage deeply with corporations, foundations and NGOs working in this space to identify and synthesize knowledge about the characteristics of this problem space, the strategies and tactics of different organizations contributing to and/or addressing this problem, and the potential of these strategies for positive or negative impact.