Christophe Dunand
Ashoka Fellow since 2014   |   Switzerland

Christophe Dunand

Christophe Dunand has changed the way the Swiss social sector operates - making it more collaborative, bottom-up and oriented toward changemaking. He has introduced a nation-wide approach to connect…
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This description of Christophe Dunand's work was prepared when Christophe Dunand was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Christophe Dunand has changed the way the Swiss social sector operates - making it more collaborative, bottom-up and oriented toward changemaking. He has introduced a nation-wide approach to connect some of the most excluded people (long-term unemployed and socially disenfranchised persons) to the labor market by addressing the challenges created by the Swiss government’s highly local regulation and control, demonstrating the power of innovation and experimentation to address social challenges, and building multi-sector networks across traditional siloes. Christophe’s architecture of the Swiss social sector has resulted in the federation and professionalization of social organizations, the establishment of the social enterprise as a viable structure, and the engagement of all sectors of Swiss society in driving change.

The New Idea

Throughout the nineties, Christophe started building the field of “social integration enterprises” (i.e social enterprises focused on connecting vulnerable, unemployed people more permanently to the workforce) and demonstrating the power of social entrepreneurship. He invented and scaled a new model to reintegrate the most excluded people into the labor market and made it the new reference for the whole social sector.

Capitalizing on his experience and recognition in the field of social integration, Christophe has replicated his model and initiated a changemaking movement in all the social fields of action, from education to environment to health, working against exclusion. His transformative model relies on a threefold strategy: 1) creating networks to federate local initiatives under a common identity and breaking down barriers created by the highly-local nature of the social sector and government regulation; 2) incubating new solutions and demonstrating the power of innovation to change traditional systems; and 3) breaking silos to engage government, academic and business players. The DNA of Christophe’s national platform to connect local initiatives for employment includes training for in-demand jobs, scalability, innovation and private partnerships.

Because of Christophe’s work, a single definition of social integration enterprise is now accepted in all the Swiss cantons, which unlocks funding and support for scaling-up initiatives. In addition, the “’Swiss Integration Network” – which gathers all public and private organizations working on labor issues - uses Christophe’s model as its new strategic framework.

Christophe also has created a flagship network of “Cantonal Chambers for Social Economy” which provides unprecedented visibility, coordination and collaboration to the Swiss social sector, which has been slower to embrace innovation and which is highly local in nature. Finally, Christophe started the first classes on social entrepreneurship in universities and business schools in Switzerland, influenced the city of Geneva to create a new employment contract for people with social issues, and he engaged the National Confederation of Swiss Employers (26,000 companies) to change their recruitment processes and hire people coming from social integration enterprises. A key figure in Switzerland, Christophe’s pioneering efforts have created a legitimate legal and financial space for the sector of social entrepreneurship to surface and scale.

The Problem

The 1990’s ended a long period of prosperity in Switzerland, with the global economic crisis hitting the country ten years later than other European countries. The major economic recession accelerated changes in the structure of the labor market, and for the first time the level of unemployment greatly increased, from 1.2% to 8%. The Swiss social sector, which was rooted in traditional models of social action and charity, had no solutions to effectively fight against widespread unemployment and economic exclusion.

Moreover, because Switzerland is structured as a confederation and policy and practice is highly-local, the growth and spread of successful, high-impact social initiatives has been limited. With four official languages and 26 cantons, running their own local governments and regulations, Switzerland is a country of small, atomized and locally-based organizations. Public policies defined at the levels of the state, the cantons or the cities are often inconsistent with each other, including those related to employment regulations, disabled people’s rights or funding of vocational training. This locally-oriented structure has restrained the spread and large-scale development of solutions geared towards social problems.

Compared to neighboring countries like France, Italy or Germany, who saw the emergence of cooperative movements in the 18th century, Switzerland has had little history of social entreprises or social economy. Because Switzerland is building this sector from scratch, social sector leaders are learning from the successes and failures of social sector leaders in other countries, and are seeking to be more efficient and effective from the start. For example, new solutions employing vulnerable people are promoting the need to be close to the market, developing strong economic models and partnering with business players.

The Strategy

In the early 1990’s, Christophe took over REALISE, a five-employee social enterprise near Geneva that he helped to create in 1984, with the goal of piloting the first Swiss integration model for unemployed people. Today, the first reintegration company in Switzerland, REALISE helps connect hard-to-employ people to the workforce, with six-month training programs that are highly-tailored to the needs of companies and trends in the labor market. REALISE maintains close relationships with companies and its training programs regularly adapt to follow the needs of the labor market, from laundry services, gardening or logistics to horology.

To spread his idea to other local initiatives working on employment training and integration of vulnerable populations, Christophe set up the “Council for Social and Economic Integration” in 2002. This pioneering network federates more than 170 organizations and has several goals: to share experiences and best practices among the localized efforts, to foster greater collaboration between local organizations, to organize trainings, and, most importantly, to gather all the actors under the same identity and lobby for a greater recognition and support from public institutions. Given the decentralized governance of Switzerland, Christophe has developed strong local anchors to be represented at a cantonal and city level, while at the same time creating a national identity and representation. Because of his work, a common definition of Social Integration enterprise is now accepted by all cantons and public grants have been adapted to fund and support efforts like Christophe’s that are designed to integrate difficult to employ people in the workforce.

Applying the same method for the broader field of social entrepreneurship, Christophe created the national network of “Cantonal Chambers on Social Economy” in 2004. Built through a bottom-up approach to respond to the needs of on-the-ground actors, these chambers are new spaces for every organization with a social mission to share practices, professionalize, and identify the critical barriers and steps needed to scale.

The Cantonal Chambers on Social Economy also focuses on changing policy and working with public authorities. Christophe has piloted the Chamber of Geneva - the first and biggest chamber in the network with more than 250 members - and positioned it as the leading innovation lab to experiment with different methods to achieve social change and spread these methods. Each experimentation (eg: on best practices, trainings, negotiation with public institutions or private partnerships) is analyzed and integrated in the replication toolkits to be easily shared between all the current and future Chambers. The first Swiss integrator for social enterprises (ESSAIM) has become a major initiative of the Chamber of Geneva. Thanks to the support and advice it provides, 42 social enterprises have already been launched.

Having demonstrated his capacity to transform the social sector and influence all the actors, Christophe’s ambition is now to break down the silos between all the sectors, and position social entrepreneurship models as inspirational forces to shift our economy towards a more sustainable system. In that sense, Christophe has pushed social entrepreneurship ideas within the corporate, public and academic world and enabled major changes in their practices.

In 2008, Christophe set up the first course in Social Entrepreneurship at the Geneva School of Business Administration, soon followed by most Swiss universities, and engages several academic researchers on the role and impact of social economy in Switzerland.

Within the public sector, he has influenced and changed policy related to job contracts and enabled the creation of “solidarity jobs” at the boundary between integration and traditional employment. Because 700 people have already benefited from this new status in Geneva, the model is being explored by other European countries, such as France, who have failed to create an intermediary type of contract, capable of employing people who will always have difficulties in the labor market for the long-term. Within the business sector, a key partnership with the National Confederation of Employers is also a premiere in the social integration field in Europe and is now considered as a model on how to co-create recruitment process that include people with a social reintegration background. Recognized as a pioneer in many ways, Christophe participates in working groups all over Europe and enables the Swiss example to become a driver in other countries.

The Person

Christophe was not interested or inspired by traditional schools, so he underperformed and dropped out of school at the age of 16. Passionate about the environment, he joined a horticulture professional program with the idea of learning how to produce food without negatively effecting the environment. He then attended an engineer school and researched on wood compost, developing the first compost fabric, which was an innovative concept for the time. More and more engaged, he realized that environmental stakes are strongly correlated to social and economic issues. At the age of 23, he left for Nicaragua to work on cooperative farms and better understand farming, working hand in hand with local communities.

Back in Geneva, he followed a post-graduate Masters in Sustainable Development, and helped start, on a voluntary basis, a small organization on employment, called REALISE. In 1989, facing the rise of unemployment, he decided to leave his job to transform REALISE into the first Swiss social entreprise for social and economic reintegration. With a strong interest in experimenting and modelling new ideas, he tried a number of new strategies to get greater impact, such as the effect of a six-month intense training period on reintegration in the workforce and the focus on being close to the market by aligning training to the needs of business and trends in the workplace. Because of his desire to share his successes and failures, improve his ideas, and increase impact, Christophe became frustrated with the systemic lack of support for social entrepreneurs. Convinced by the power of networks and inspired by collaborative work in Burkina Faso, Christophe launched the first platform to enable the connections, sharing of best practices and mutual learning between actors of the social field. Through a bottom-up approach respectful of the identity and needs of each organization, he succeeded in gathering the major organizations for employment and integration, granting them with a common identity and a common voice to speak to the public institutions.

To go further in creating an ecosytem to support social enterprises, Christophe opened his field of action to broader topics. In 2004, he launched a first working group on social entrepreneurship, which later became the Cantonal Chambers on Social Economy. His appetite for experimenting, modeling and sharing led him to develop toolkits to empower local actors on the most effective ways to create social change. Close to the academic institutions, Chrisophe was interested in both the theory and practice needed to succeed.

Thanks to an outstanding capacity to mobilize key actors and a diversified profile of as an entrepreneur, social worker and academic teacher, Christophe has succeeded in breaking the silos and engaging social, public, academic and business players in a changemaking movement. A charismatic entrepreneur, visionary and pragmatist, Christophe is a recognized pioneer in Switzerland who is, according to his own words, “like a plant that grows progressively, continuously, without breaking”.

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