The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur
Recently, I wrote a column suggesting that, in the field of social change, we’re getting smarter. I went so far as to say that we may even be going through a new Enlightenment. I mentioned three ways we’re improving — employing new understandings about human behavior to get better results, using evidence more regularly to assess and guide problem-solving, and constructing integrated solutions to social problems. I also promised to highlight some other advances.
Today, I’m focusing on a key innovation that underlies much of these gains: the recognition of the role played by entrepreneurs in advancing positive social changes. I don’t mean businesspeople solving social ills, but people spreading new approaches — through nonprofits and businesses, or within government — to address problems more successfully than in the past.
At times, it can be hard to believe that progress is happening. Most of our news focuses on problems, not creative responses to them. Moreover, in the wake of the government shutdown, we are acutely aware of the bitter divisions that hamstring efforts to work together.
But the rhetoric of a political campaign is misleading. It makes us think we have to choose between government and business — as if those are the only tools in the box. We don’t. One of the most interesting stories in social change today is how much creative problem-solving is emerging from citizens scattered far and wide who are taking it upon themselves to fix things and who, in many cases, are outperforming traditional organizations or making systems work better. At Fixes, we’ve reported on dozens of creative efforts in education, health care, vocational training, prison reform,foster care — many of which have been initiated by citizens.
Is this something new? And, if so, why is it happening?
There have always been people who build organizations that demonstrate new possibilities and spark change. In business, they were given the name “entrepreneurs” some 200 years ago. As their role came to be understood, societies instituted a wide array of supports to help them — legal innovations like limited liability and joint stock ownership, financial innovations like I.P.O.’s, bonds and venture capital, and intellectual innovations like management consulting and business schools.
In the social sector, until recently, we called their counterparts — people like Dorothea Dix, Gifford Pinchot or Asa Philip Randolph — humanitarians or revolutionaries. It’s only in the past 30 years — and primarily in the past 10 — as the number of social entrepreneurs has multiplied, that we’ve come to appreciate their role in social change — and begun to study their methods.
What happened to spark these changes around the world?
Over the past generation — because of historic shifts like the women’s movement, the spread of political freedoms and access to education, and the growth of middle classes in many developing countries — the world has seen a marked increase in the number of people who have the capacity to be change-makers.
At the same time, because of the pace of change and the information revolution, more people are aware that institutions — especially governments and businesses — are failing to address big problems in the environment, the economy and education. As Peter Drucker, the management expert, has written: “In a world buffeted by change, faced daily with new threats to survival, the only way to conserve is by innovating.”
If we wanted to build a system that would elicit solutions to complex and unforeseeable problems wherever they were needed, how might we do it?
We might try to identify leaders scattered in communities around the planet and help them address problems as they appeared. We might try to prepare these people with leadership skills, ideas and resources so they could be effective and ethical change-makers. We’d try to create a response mechanism that acts something like the body’s immune system.
Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, the global network of social entrepreneurs, says that this is the vision we should set our sights on if we hope to keep up with the need for ever faster responses to an ever growing array of problems (pdf). It represents a radical departure from a world in which, for millenniums, tiny minorities of elites have been telling most everyone else what to do.
It was almost three decades ago when Drayton began identifying the proliferation of self-appointed change agents in places like India, Indonesia and Brazil. What was different about them, he saw, was that they were moving beyond traditional political engagement and activism to building organizations that could implement solutions and spread them: new educational methods, new poverty alleviation tools (like the Grameen Bank), new ways of protecting the environment. Those who were successful often managed to change government policies and standard practices in their fields — much like the organization City Year inspired the federal government’s national service program, AmeriCorps.
Since then, social entrepreneurship has established itself as a global field, and the term has gained widespread usage, particularly in the past decade. (A Nexis search for “social entrepreneur” yielded 389 English news stories in 2001 and more than 3,000 in 2011.) In 2002, there were only a handful of courses on the subject, reports Debbi D. Brock, author of a handbook for educators. In 2008, she found 350 professors or researchers focusing on the topic in more than 35 countries. Social entrepreneurship clubs or conferenceshave become popular on many campuses. As was the case with business, new financing mechanisms are being developed for this version of entrepreneurship. Governments are taking steps to harness citizen-led innovations. Much of this activity is less than five years old.
With the new attention has come confusion about what social entrepreneurs do, however. One problem stems from the word “entrepreneur,” which, to many, is synonymous with “businessperson,” and therefore implies that social entrepreneurs simply redeploy business skills and tools to build enterprises to solve social problems. However, some of those who track this work most closely say that the greatest strength of social entrepreneurs isn’t in the way they build ventures to deliver products or services, but in the way they connect people in new configurations and, in so doing, help people work together more effectively, influencing their career or life pathways.
“Social entrepreneurs excel at togetherness,” says Sally Osberg, president and chief executive of the Skoll Foundation. For a long time, Osberg said, she viewed social entrepreneurs as “individual actors” whose ideas led to the “creative destruction” necessary to “replace a societal status quo” with systems that were more just. “But over recent years,” she added, “I’ve come to see how the ‘social’ that characterizes their purpose also characterizes their way of working. In other words, social entrepreneurs don’t just pursue a social end, they pursue that end in a fundamentally communal way.” This approach is badly needed at a time of extreme factionalism, she adds: “Regardless of whether you call it teamwork, collaboration or consensus-building, we need it, and we need it now.”
Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green, which supports early stage social entrepreneurs, made a similar observation: “Social entrepreneurship has captured the attention of many because of its inherently hopeful message, a message of individual engagement and efficacy.” While the “narrative lends itself to heroics and hagiography,” she added, “underneath it all is a clear-eyed understanding that the job of the social entrepreneur is large-scale enrollment,” the enrollment of many people and organizations in addressing problems in new ways.
I have found this to be the case. Consider LIFT, an organization I wrote about last year, which was founded by a college student and has brought together thousands of student volunteers who address poverty through a process of relationship building with clients in need. LIFT’s approach demonstrates how a human-oriented safety net system might work. Along the way, the student volunteers who pass through LIFT discover that they have surprising capacity to solve problems and help other people transform their lives; many say that the experience is life-changing.
“Every social entrepreneur is a mass recruiter and facilitator of local change-makers,” says Drayton. “Because they are role models, other people say, ‘If they can do that, maybe I can do something like it, too,’ and most of the time the way they get their work done is to create a movement.”
Today, as problems have grown increasingly complex, a big question is how can we reorganize the problem-solving work of society so it is more responsive to needs. Three generations ago, the federal government could address many forms of injustice through legislation — mandating a 40-hour workweek, instituting a minimum wage, establishing housing codes. Today, our societal challenges — in education, health, or the environment — demand innovation from many directions.
We don’t know where the best ideas will come from any more than we know where the next Google will arise. The emergence of social entrepreneurship reflects this uncertainty — as well as a major new opportunity: the fact that the capacity and motivation needed to solve problems is now widely dispersed. The question is, how do we find, elicit, nurture and harness the talents of millions of potential change-makers for the greatest good? It’s not just a question for would-be social entrepreneurs. It’s relevant for policy makers, managers, educators, parents — and ourselves. Many of us have little idea of our own change-making potential. We may be in for a surprise. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.”
This article was first published in the New York Times “Fixes” column.
Photo courtesy of OpenSourceway (Flickr).