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10 Must-Listen Podcasts for Every Social Change-Maker

Get informed and inspired by 10 of the best podcast episodes we've heard for social change-makers this year.

April 03, 2017

The 10 best podcasts for social change-makers

We recently started producing our own podcast called On Leading Change hosted by +Acumen’s Director, Jo-Ann Tan. While we’re just dipping our toe in the waters of podcast production, we’ve been avid podcast listeners for many years. Our staff listen to hours of audio to inform our views on social innovation and spark new ideas for +Acumen courses.

If you're looking to expand your list of go-to shows or just discovering the world of podcasting, here are 10 of the best episodes we've heard for social change-makers this year. Whether you listen to just one or all ten, you’ll come away more informed and inspired! 



NPR Reporter Exposes Charity’s Failings” from Tiny Spark: Investigating the Business of Doing Good podcast. If you’re not listening to Tiny Spark yet, this is a great place to begin. The show is hosted by Amy Costello, a hard-hitting journalist who has worked for the BBC, PRI and PBS television. She cut her teeth producing a widely viewed PBS documentary called “Troubled Water” which uncovered many problems with the Playpump, a water technology deployed across Africa that had been hailed as a breakthrough innovation by many members of the international donor community. This experience became the ‘spark’ for her Tiny Spark podcast. Amy asks tough questions, but she’s not a cynic. She genuinely wants to find solutions to global problems as she presses her guests to provide insights on the unintended consequences of aid, philanthropy, or charity. In this episode, she 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.


this american life-546x213

This American Life is an old favorite in the U.S. radio world, but the series on the refugee crisis proves why they are such masters of the genre. A team of reporters traveled to Greece to produce two episodes from refugee camps. They meet a pair of star-crossed lovers, a mother struggling to protect her teenage son from radicalization, and kids who lived through 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, this American Life 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 the Syrian refugee crisis. 


Stanford Social Innovation

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 tune in from anywhere in the world. One of our favorite recent 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. 


on being

We’re big fans of all the conversations hosted by Krista Tippett, but her recent On Being episode with Elizabeth Gilbert on “Choosing Curiosity Over Fear” stood out. This spring +Acumen 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.”



Gimlet Creative’s Open for Business podcast is a set of 6 episodes about building 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.” Our favorite episode from this season 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



Embedded is an immersive new podcast from NPR’s fearless Kelly McEvers. In her episode “The Hospital,” she reports from the frontlines of a Medicins San Frontiers hospital in South Sudan where you hear the very human stories of patients and the international doctors trying to treat—and stay resilient—in the face of some of the world’s most pressing global health challenges.



There are two episodes from this season of Startup that feature the story of a social business. “Happy Ending” and “From the Cell to the Sell” follow Coss Martin, a former drug operative who did a stint in prison, and how he rebounded from these difficult circumstances to build a social enterprise that employees other formerly incarcerated individuals. This story resonates with the Acumen America team based in San Francisco that has been digging into new business models to address the problem of workforce development in the United States. These episodes offer one case study of how we can create more job opportunities that allow people to pursue lives of dignity as well as a behind-the-scenes look at a social venture pitch competition. 



Both seasons of NPR’s Invisibilia are stunning, but one part of their “Flip the Script” episode hosted by Hanna Rosin is 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 and divides that plague 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. 



If you’re looking for both practical and inspirational advice straight from the lips of social entrepreneurs, Tony Lloyd’s Social Entrepreneur podcast comes out with three new episodes a week. 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. Some of our favorite episodes are with Hillary Miller-Wise of Acumen investee Esoko, Alexandra Lafci of New Story (a +Acumen course participant) and Sasha Dichter, Acumen’s own Chief Innovation Officer.



And in case you missed it, catch our own Jo-Ann Tan in conversation with social change-makers on our new On Leading Change podcast. In one recent episode Virginia Hamilton, an innovation champion at the U.S. Department of Labor, describes how she went from being an artist living on a houseboat to overseeing all federal workforce development programs for the West Coast of the U.S. while infusing government with fresh perspectives, new technologies, and cutting edge ideas.


Amy Ahearn

Amy Ahearn is an Associate Director at Acumen where she builds online courses to inspire new approaches to tackling poverty. She holds an MA in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford and is based in Acumen’s San Francisco office.

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