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Are Social Entrepreneurs Too Idealistic?

   /   Apr 19th, 2012News

Social entrepreneurs often strive toward achieving a 'triple bottom line.' But are they side-stepping questions of politics?

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.”

24 Responses

  1. [...] article written in response to some recent debate about whether social entrepreneurs are naive about government and [...]

  2. Clear says:

    I have been in this space for 13 years+ and helped to start over 30 nonprofits and businesses. I have worked to “ideally save the world” from Nepal to Costa Rica, from festival grounds to my parents kitchen. I work with interns, children, professionals and grandparents. It is sad an “old person” who doesn’t have “ideas” spends anytime even talking about people like me who are trying and doing the things to “fix the wicked problems” that old guys like this Brooks character sit around analyzing, and judging. Hey Brooks, is it that hard to “idealize” the world you want to live in? When do you give up? When’s the last time you had a dream? And went for it? The people like me actually doing something… consider the “idealistic” people, the old farts that actually believe the ruined matrix of a world they are trying to control. Their “idealism” is that things are bad, getting worse and you can’t do anything about it. They hold “ideas” like concrete. We are “CREATIVES” because we are creating the world we want. It’s not an idea. It’s a design, a creation, a manifestation. It aint no idea! And that’s where evolutionary selection comes in at it’s newest evolved form. See, it’s people like Brooks who can’t evolve and we leave in the dust… as people like Rachel Signer, myself and our warriors of the future design spend our time fixing the world those punks broke, left for dead and complain about us fixing. …Just a thought:) “When all the old fools take off their suits, put on robes, turn on Wheel of Fortune and move into the retirement home; the government, health care, and all systems for that matter will be ours. We are the CEO’s, presidents and Executive Direction of the future…yes…direction. The revolution has come and we already won…in the future we prepare for everyday. FYI:)”

  3. [...] Dowser published a response which argued the case for social entrepreneurs to continue as is, citing Ben Powell who founded [...]

  4. Rachel… always good to see your articles stirring up the SHIT! To be honest, I think the social enterprise (SOCENT) sector needs even more; so keep it up! I can’t speak too much about the SOCENT sector in the US. But yes, there are far too many young, white (mazungus) who come to Kenya who think they are going to change the world and have no idea what they are talking about. They come here for a “life experience” or to be “humbled” by Africa. There are even organizations who mange philanthropic holidays. The reality: systemic change isn’t accomplished overnight but it can be accomplished through commercial enterprise. Instead of talking about generational gaps and our own egos, let’s get back to basic economic theory! The world at large is in an economic and food crisis. This crisis is birthing (with the help of instant social media) a new generation of business models and eventual political leadership, even if we don’t see it all so clearly yet.

    It’s not that systemic change is less plausible in established democracies like the US; it’s just a community with far less patience. I visited in October and was overwhelmed by everything that DID work. We all have a different perspective and that is the joy of being a social entrepreneur. I don’t have to agree with any of you… unless I want to secure funding! If nothing else, this a journey into the power of free will. What an individual or community in NYC finds value in won’t be the same as California, Wyoming, India or rural Kenya. So as an overworked and unpaid social entrepreneur in Africa, I am on my own path. I may not have changed the whole world ‘yet’ but my organization has impacted the lives of thousands of rural farmers. I can’t believe in my heart or head that this is a bad thing. So idealistic … naive… or maybe just impatient!

  5. Tim Gieseke says:

    I would say that social entrepreneurs tend to be more idealistic, but each path must begin somewhere. As an economic entrepreneur I face the same perspective. But in my reality, few things change long-term without the means for many people to easily place value on them. My venture is “Symbiotic Demand” as illustrated: https://prezi.com/tpfaewgz1jie/apportioning-ecological-values-and-costs-through-symbiotic-demand/

  6. It now appears, Echoing Green’s crew is responding to the same article by brooks. I think the idealists have had their feathers ruffled!
    http://www.echoinggreen.org/blog/a-healthy-dose-of-idealism

  7. [...] 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. # [...]

  8. Brooks should feel fortunate that you’ve lent dignity to his pastiche of slovenly reasoning by way of a response. I will leave rebuttals of what little content Brooks has to other commentators. But as someone who has read all of Dashiel Hammett’s novels, I can only say that his PIs were more interested in justice where – and if – they could get it, not law and order as a higher ideal. For example, in “Red Harvest” the main character sets off a gang war to clean up the town. In “The Glass Key,” Ned Beaumont collects a winning bet by threatening to frame a bookie for murder.

    If Brooks wanted to draw a real comparison between PIs and social entrepreneurs, he might have cited “Miller’s Crossing” – how a lone entrepreneur gets the work done in the face of social indifference and institutional abandonment. Incidentally, “Miller’s Crossing” is almost entirely lifted from “The Glass Key”. Fancy that, Brooksy!

  9. [...] Are Social Entrepreneurs Too Idealistic? Social entrepreneurs mostly essay toward achieving the 'triple bottom line.' But have been they side-stepping questions of politics? Are amicable entrepreneurs as well idealistic? David Brooks thinks so. In his new Times column, he wrote which “young idealists” … Read some-more upon Dowser [...]

  10. [...] via Are Social Entrepreneurs Too Idealistic? | Dowser. [...]

  11. [...] (when he has in the past been very supportive of social entrepreneurship). But Echoing Green and Dowser quickly came to social entrepreneurship’s [...]

  12. [...] a long way from building the market," said Ben Powell, the CEO of Agora Partnerships (and who we've featured on Dowser before), reflecting on the conference. "We need to effectively channel resources to [...]

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