University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business


Warren Nilsson (University of Cape Town)
Sustaining Social Change: Warren Nilsson at TEDxCapeTown


University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business
MPhil Director

QUALIFICATIONS: AB (College Scholar) Cornell; MBA University of Baltimore; Ph.D. (Strategy & Organization) McGill

AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Institutional shifts related to social and environmental sustainability, organizational practices, social innovation

I am an Associate Professor of Social Innovation at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, where I also serve as the Academic Director of the MPhil in Inclusive Innovation program.

My research focuses on the organizational dynamics of social change. I am particularly interested in the relationship between positive organizing and social innovation. Why are some organizations so good at disrupting previously intractable patterns of behavior, belief, and relationship? How can social purpose organizations develop a sustained capacity for ongoing institutional reimagination? My research exploring the concept of "positive institutional work" has appeared in the Academy of Management Review and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and I am a faculty affiliate of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan.

I have a passion for connecting my academic research to practitioner-driven social initiatives and have worked with social purpose organizations in North America, Africa, and South Asia. I am the co-founder of Organization Unbound (, an international community of inquiry and experimentation exploring how social purpose organizations can more closely align their internal practices and cultures with their external social change goals. This practice of "expressive change" is introduced in a short film called "Changing the Way We Change the World," available on YouTube.


Ph.D. in Management (Strategy & Organization) - 2010

  • McGill University, Montreal, Quebec
  • Dissertation: Sustaining Engagement in Social Purpose Organizations: An Institutional Perspective on Positive Organizational Practices Ph.D. Program Research Award 2009
  • Supervisor: Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management, McGill University
  • Committee: Steve Maguire, Associate Professor of Strategy and Organization, McGill University
  • Alain Chanlat, Professor of Management, École des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC) Montreal
  • Areas of theoretical expertise: Organizational Strategy, Institutional Theory (in sociology), Positive Organizational Scholarship, Social Innovation, Social and Environmental Sustainability in Organizations.

Master of Business Administration - 1999

University of Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland

Bachelor of Arts (College Scholar)- 1990 Cornell University, Ithaca, New York


My research explores the relationship between positive organizational dynamics (e.g., engagement, creativity, compassion) and broader patterns of deep, intentional, institutional change.

Theoretically, I synthesize two streams of research- Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) and Neoinstitutional Theory - to develop a construct of 'Positive Institutional Work' that differs markedly from existing treatments of institutional work in the literature.

Empirically, I explore this construct through qualitative inquiry into especially vibrant social purpose organizations that have altered the typical institutional dynamics in their fields. To date, I have worked with organizations focused on education, sustainability, food security, youth development, and mental health.


  • A theory-building article that challenges current understandings of institutional entrepreneurship and develops the concept of 'Positive Institutional Work'.
  • An empirical article exploring engagement as an organizational construct rooted in 'transitive purpose' in the context of social purpose work.
  • A practitioner-oriented article focused on organizational development approaches to institutional innovation. (Part of a book I am working on (The Giving Field) exploring organizational dimensions of deep institutional transformation.)
  • Eight months of ethnographic and action research in Zimbabwe and India. I am expanding my research by exploring cross-cultural implications of my earlier findings.
  • A research colloquium for scholars and practitioners interested in linking Positive Organizational Scholarship to Social Movements and Institutional Change.


An expansion of my inquiry to include advocacy organizations and social enterprises. An intercultural action research project (possibly linking Southern Africa and the U.S./Canada) around institutional change in the education sector.


Living Labs Evaluation Project- Santropol Roulant, Montreal (2004-2006)

Partnered with a leading local community organization to design a multi-year evaluation focused on the inter-organizational impacts of engagement practices in the social sector.

McGill-DuPont Social Innovation Initiative, Montreal (2002-2003)

Research assistant to a team led by Professor Frances Westley (University of Waterloo) exploring social innovation in complex systems. Resulted in the book Getting To Maybe.

Professor Henry Mintzberg, McGill University, Montreal (2001-2002)

Research assistant for multiple projects, including a monograph on the balanced society and a book on management education (Managers Not MBAs).


Areas of Instructional Expertise

Organizational Strategy, Organizational Behavior, Complex Adaptive Systems, Positive Organizational Development, Organizational Dimensions of Social and Environmental Sustainability, Corporate Social Responsibility, Nonprofit Management, Social Entrepreneurship & Social Enterprise.


McGill University, Desautels Faculty of Management (2003-2010)

Montreal, Quebec

Instructor for 32 classes. Average size 40-60 students. Course titles:

  • Organizational Strategy (undergraduate)
  • Strategies for Sustainability (MBA & undergraduate)
  • Social Context of Business (undergraduate)

Doctoral Student Society Distinguished Teaching Award ; 2009

Doctoral Student Society Distinguished Teaching Award ; 2007

Doctoral Student Society Distinguished Teaching Award ; 2006

McGill University, Executive Institute (2003-2010)

Montreal, Quebec

Led multiple sessions in the following executive programs:

  • International Master's in Health Leadership (IMHL)
  • Topic: Social Innovation & Institutional Change
  • Advanced Leadership Program (ALP)
  • Topic: Creativity in Organizational Analysis
  • International Master's in Practicing Management (IMPM)
  • Topic: Creativity in Organizational Analysis
  • École des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC) (2010)

Montreal, Quebec

Instructor. Course title:

  • Contemporary Issues and Social Responsibilities of the Firm (MBA)
  • University of Baltimore, Merrick School of Business (2000-2002)

Baltimore, Maryland

Instructor for five classes. Course titles:

  • Economics of Public Policy and Corporate Social Responsibility (MBA)
  • Organizational Behavior (undergraduate)


Co-founder, Organization Unbound (2009- )

Founded a project to experiment with ways that social purpose organizations can live out in their daily practices the changes they are trying to create in the world and by doing so seed deeper patterns of institutional transformation. Sponsored a series of dialogues and workshops and began a collaborative blog (, which currently averages 300 unique visitors a month from over 40 countries.

Curriculum Developer, McGill Social Context of Business Course Team (2003-2010)

Played a key role in the continuing development of the faculty's core undergraduate course exploring social themes. Helped shape the course into its current blend of global social and environmental issues, organizational development, and personal transformation. The course has become a student touchstone in the Bachelor of Commerce program.

Member, Mintzberg Colloquium on Social Sector Organizations (2002-2006)

Participated in a colloquium of professors and doctoral students pursuing research on social sector organizations and social transformation.

Vice President, Montreal Urban Community Sustainment Initiative (2005-2006)

Founding board member of a sustainability initiative combining cooperative housing, cooperative business development, green design, food security, and community building.

Ph.D. Student Representative, McGill Faculty of Management Ph.D. Committee (2002-2003)

Served as student liaison to the Ph.D. program steering committee. Participated in policy, budgetary, and curricular decision-making.


Organizational Consultant, Washington, D.C./Baltimore, Maryland (2000-2001)

Provided fundraising and project support for social sector clients working on initiatives ranging from education to micro enterprise development to urban greening.

Executive Director, Baltimore Caregivers, Baltimore, Maryland (1997-2000)

Founded and directed a community-based, welfare-to-work training and employment initiative in the health care sector. Managed a staff of 40 people. Handled all fundraising and coordinated the development of a network of public, community, and private sector partners. Using principles of self-organization, fostered the transition to a cooperative management model in which participants took on leadership roles in key areas.

Community Economic Development Associate, South East Community Organization, Baltimore, Maryland (1995-1997)

Served as a community organizer for urban, grassroots economic development projects. Helped build bridging programs in an 80,000-person catchment area struggling with poverty, crime, drugs, racial tension, and school breakdown.

Communications Coordinator, Coalition for Low-Income Community Development, Washington, D.C./Baltimore, Maryland (1991-1994)

Provided technical assistance to low-income communities nationwide. Developed written materials focused on policy analysis and participatory organizing techniques. Helped low-income neighborhoods position themselves for proportional access to federal block grant development funds.


  • Nilsson, W. (2015). "Positive institutional work: Exploring institutional work through the lens of positive organizational scholarship." Academy of Management Review, 40: 370-398. Received the Academy of Management Review 2015 Best Paper Award.
  • Nilsson, W., Bonnici, F., & Wosu Griffin-EL, E. (2015). "The Social Innovation Lab: An Experiment in the Pedagogy of Institutional Work." In V. Bitzer, R. Hamann, M. Hall, & E. Griffin-EL (Eds.), The Business of Social and Environmental Innovation: New Frontiers in Africa: 201-212. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
  • Methner, N., Hamann, R., & Nilsson, W. (2015). "The Evolution of a Sustainability Leader: The Development of Strategic and Boundary Spanning Capabilities in Woolworths." In V. Bitzer, R. Hamann, M. Hall, & E. Griffin-EL (Eds.), The Business of Social and Environmental Innovation: New Frontiers in Africa: 87-104. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
  • Nilsson, W. and Paddock, T. (2014). "Social Innovation from the Inside Out." Stanford Social Innovation Review Winter: 46-52
  • Nilsson, W. and Paddock, T. (2013). "Inscaping: Exploring the Connection Between Experiential Surfacing and Social Innovation." NESTA Conference Proceedings: Social Frontiers - The Next Edge of Social Innovation Research. London. Available here.
  • Nilsson, W. (2009). "The Giving Field." Ascent Magazine, Spring.
  • Bento, R. F. and Nilsson, W. (2009). "Visual Metaphors: A New Language for Discovery and Dialogue." Transformative Dialogues 2(3): 1-12.
  • Nilsson, W. and Janzen, E. (2008). "The Expressive Organization." Livraison 9: 48-50. Spring.
  • Nilsson, W. (2006). The Southern Wall: Organizational Engagement at Santropol Roulant. Montreal: J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.
  • Bento, R. and Nilsson, W. (2005). Beyond Words: Visual Metaphors and Dialogue in Management Education and Development. Changing the Way You Teach: Creative Tools for Management Educators. T. Torres, M. Gascó and A. Coelho. Oviedo, Spain: Septem.

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