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Social innovators in history: 8 lessons from Benjamin Frankin, America’s founding social entrepreneur

   /   Sep 2nd, 2010News

As the sun rose on February 4, 1735, Philadelphians awoke to find a most curious letter to the editor in the morning edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette.

“Being old and lame of my Hands, and thereby uncapable of assisting my Fellow Citizens, when their Houses are on Fire; I must beg them to take in good Part the following Hints on the Subject of Fires,” the letter began before launching into a provocative vision for Philadelphia—a fire department. “Let others communicate their Thoughts as freely as I have done mine,” the author concluded, “and perhaps something useful may be drawn from the Whole.”

Then, simply: “I am yours, A.A.”

A.A. may have been a mystery in 1735. But we now know that he was not the “old and lame” lay-reader “uncapable of assisting my Fellow Citizens, when their Houses are on Fire” that he claimed to be. The writer was, in fact, America’s first prominent innovator for the public good: Benjamin Franklin. Then 29 years old, this Founding Father was also, as it turns out, our Founding Social Entrepreneur.

Every schoolchild knows Franklin’s legacy well. He invented catheters, odometers, swim fins, bifocals, stoves, lightening rods, and armonicas. He was a writer, printer, philosopher, psychologist, politician, humorist, epidemiologist, educator, diplomat, and lawyer all in one. But while all of this may make Franklin one of our most innovative, and influential, historical figures, it does not necessarily mean that he was a social entrepreneur. For that slice of the ever-evolving man, we must turn to a part of his life often forgotten: the two decades before he entered “retirement,” at age 42, to begin his scientific experiments and political exploits. It was during these years that Franklin established an American tradition that Tocqueville would observe decades later as a national obsession with “forming associations.”

According to Walter Isaacson, author of a recent Franklin biography, Franklin was instrumental in instilling socially innovative ventures as a lasting part of American life. “The essence of Franklin is that he was a civic-minded man. He cared more about public behavior than inner piety, and he was more interested in building the City of Man than the City of God,” Isaacson writes.

With sheer force of personality, a startling attention to detail, and the stroke of his pen, Franklin established America’s first fire departments, police departments, circulation libraries, modern universities, and insurance associations—and many of those were global firsts.  Franklin brought us organizations for empowering other civic-minded groups to thrive, an 18th-century precursor to Ashoka. But how, exactly, did Franklin epitomize the idea that one need not choose between self-reliance and civic involvement? How did he manage, as he once put it himself, to create ventures that eventually “improved the general conversation” of an entire nation? How did he turn big ideas into social norms?

Ever the teacher, Franklin fortunately left us clues—in his almanac, letters, and autobiography—from which every budding social entrepreneur (and Poor Richard) can learn nearly three centuries later.

1. Share the credit. Today, few people in history are credited with achieving so much as Franklin. The great irony is that for much of his life, he avoided credit at all costs, sharing ownership of his ideas from the moment he conceived of them. His sign-off on the fire-prevention letter—A.A. for Anonymous American—was the rule, not the exception: he remained anonymous for as long as he could. Nothing kills an idea faster, he observed, than jealousy and the perception that its primary purpose is to raise the reputation of its leader.

2. Adopt the one-sentence rule. We all know Franklin’s unforgettable aphorisms and adages—“Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”—but what may not have been taught is that he employed them as much to foster self-improvement among the masses as to launch social endeavors. Every project was introduced with a few words that said it all, thus sticking forever in the minds of his fellow citizens.

3. Don’t micromanage; microplan. Franklin knew that to get the most out of others, he must cultivate leaders, not followers—and he did so with ease. But a modern leadership expert might be surprised to discover that as much as he trusted others to execute, he relied on himself, and a small team, to design. His fire-squad proposal included details as minute as the length (six inches) of the Brass Flame held by firewards and the penalty (10 days imprisonment) for disobedience. Franklin’s microplanning rendered it simpler for others to get involved (and also, in many cases, to begin sister organizations in other colonies). He provided the blueprint. Everyone else made it happen.

4. Put the “social” in social entrepreneurship. From his weekly Junto gatherings to the fire association’s monthly “social evening” for “discussing and communicating such ideas as occurred to us on the subject of fires,” Franklin knew how to have fun. And he knew that even when his friends were engaged in serious business, they wanted to have fun, too. So every endeavor included a structured social event—a dinner, a meet-and-greet, a club. He knew that improving the public good is as much about people as about ideas. “He that drinks his cider alone,” he wrote, “let him catch his horse alone.”

5. Kill two birds with one stone. Believe it or not, he did not coin that phrase—but he gave it meaning. Embedded in Franklin’s proposal for funding night watchmen in Philadelphia, for example, was the idea of progressive taxation. Today, of course, progressive taxation is ingrained into our national tax code.

6. Help others, help yourself. “Communiter Bona Profundere Deum Est.” —“To Pour Forth Benefits for the Common Good is Divine.” That was the motto for the Library Company of Philadelphia, which Franklin founded in 1731. But for him, the idea was not religious; it was psychological. As a young boy, he lamented the irony that some citizens failed to improve society in fundamental ways because they were concerned that civic altruism, when useful, was actually selfish: it could, after all, boost one’s reputation. Over time, though, he reframed the issue: it is OK, he argued time and again, to raise your public profile, even earn money, while concurrently endeavoring to improve society. And that same reminder he offered skeptics in 1731 applies in 2010: “Do well by doing good.”

7. Innovate, six feet under. In 1790, Franklin may have been dead. But he wasn’t done. Through his remarkably creative last will, he assigned a great portion of his savings to Boston and Philadelphia for a program, characteristically outlined in terrific detail, to help young apprentices in those cities start their own businesses. Now, that’s how you bring a good idea to life.

8. After failure, keep going (unless you’re trying to change the alphabet). Franklin may have been a genius, but sometimes, he overstepped and sometimes he faced a false start. In one of his boldest schemes, he proposed a new alphabet that he argued could eliminate illiteracy. Axing the letters C and J didn’t go over too well. Oh, and he had one additional ambitious scheme in 1754—the Albany Plan—that he was forced to shelve for a few decades. When he floated it by other leaders, after all, they told him his idea was impossible: the colonies, they insisted, could never be united.

Image: Charles Washington Wright

4 Responses

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