Are Social Entrepreneurs Too Idealistic?
Are social entrepreneurs too idealistic? David Brooks thinks so. In his recent Times column, he wrote that “young idealists” are, while “refreshingly uncynical,” also too naïve, and unaware about national and regional politics.
Social entrepreneurs, he writes, “have little faith in the political process”—instead, they are trying to do things their own way, using grassroots strategies.
At Dowser, we’ve certainly seen that social entrepreneurs often embody a grassroots ethos, preferring to use crowdfunding instead of applying for competitive grants, and working outside the boundaries of institutions.
But is Brooks correct to say that social entrepreneurs are avoiding, or ignorant of, matters of governance and politics?
Brooks’ argument has been made before, in the pages of the same newspaper. In July 2011, In an article called “Real Change Requires Politics,” former McKinsey consultant-turned-author Anand Giridharadas critiques social entrepreneurs for not recognizing that structures and systems need to be changed in order for their work to be more effective.
“Many social entrepreneurs treat power as something to work around. They can be clearer in articulating what they are for than in stating what they oppose, and why,” he writes. Giridharas portrays social entrepreneurs, much like Brooks does in his recent column, as side-stepping government—“picking fights is rarely the social entrepreneur’s way,” writes Giridharas.
After interviewing probably hundreds of social entrepreneurs for Dowser, I can think of several cases where individuals and organizations are specifically dealing with questions of policy and government. For example, Seeing Green’s year-long research project, funded by Kickstarter donations, aims to provide a scientific case for urban agriculture’s usefulness in dealing with water management problems in New York City, with the ultimate goal of prompting the city government to change the tax structure so that urban agriculture is more feasible.
And social entrepreneurs certainly understand that the problems they address are systemic. Many designers refer to social issues as “wicked problems”—when interlocking dependencies within a system make it impossible to enact substantial reform. Examples of wicked problems include the healthcare system and the education system. If you think about government as one of the factors that makes these issues into wicked problems, then it is easier to understand why social entrepreneurs are more concerned with tackling a problem directly and efficiently, than trying to change government or fix an entire system.
One of the letters-to-the-editor written in response to Brooks was penned by Ben Powell, who founded Agora Partnerships, a social enterprise investment fund and incubator, in 2005, as he was graduating from business school at Columbia University.
Powell told Dowser that he sees Brooks’ arguments as symptomatic of a generational divide. “An older generation grew up in a world with many more trade-offs, in the sense that if you were ambitious, it meant you wanted to go into politics or make money,” said Powell.
Today, however, being ambitious bears a much wider scope, beyond making money. Powell thinks that it has to do with “the extraordinary amount of investment that has gone into the Millennials’ education,” he said.
“Young people today with all these communication tools are able to project their ideas faster than any generation in history. They want to lead lives of significance in a world that has so many problems and challenges that they’re aware of, because they’re highly-educated,” said Powell.
On the matter of social entrepreneurs not focusing on politics, Powell suggested that Brooks is wrong in identifying it as a question of avoidance. “The best leaders in the country are not going and running for Congress. And that’s a problem—but it’s not a problem that can be solved by a bunch of 22-year-olds with liberal arts degrees.” Instead, those 22-year-olds locate areas where they can make a difference. “They’re not waiting around. They’re working outside of the system. And they’re being very successful,” said Powell.
Entrepreneurship is also a skill set that prepares young people for leadership, and it provides lessons that universities might not, said Powell. “Maybe social entrepreneurs will go into politics when they have more power, later—and they will actually have the tools to make effective decisions, whereas so many of our politicians are profoundly ignorant about the way the world works.”