David Bornstein: On Social Entrepreneurs
and How to Change the World
David Bornstein specializes in writing about social innovation. He is the author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Oxford University Press) which was described by The New York Times as “must reading” for “anyone who cares about building a more equitable and stable world” and a “bible” in its field. The book, which has been published (or is in the process of being published) in 20 languages, chronicles and analyzes the work of social innovators who are successfully addressing social problems at scale in several countries. Bornstein’s first book, “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” traces the history of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Grameen Bank during its first 20 years and describes the global emergence of the now-famous anti-poverty strategy known as “micro-finance.” Bornstein grew up in Montreal, Canada and now lives in New York City with his wife and son. He is currently at work on a book exploring the growth and implications of social entrepreneurship in the United States and Canada, and is developing a website that will serve as a tool for the discovery of solutions to major social problems.
Pulse: What is a social entrepreneur?
Daniel Bornstein: A social entrepreneur is a person who has both a powerful idea to cause a positive social change and the creativity, skills, determination and drive to transform that idea into reality. Social entrepreneurs combine the savvy, opportunism, optimism and resourcefulness of business entrepreneurs, but they devote themselves to pursuing social change or “social profit,” rather than financial profit. Behind all innovative business, there are entrepreneurs–individuals who possess the foresight, belief and boldness to build something new. The same holds for social change. Behind almost all important social innovations are social entrepreneurs–people with new ideas for solving problems, who build new kinds of organizations to implement those ideas, who will not take ‘no’ for an answer, and who will not give up until they have spread their ideas as far as they possibly can.
Where did this new wave of social entrepreneurship come from? Why has it found a place in the 21st century?
In the United States and across the globe, individuals today are far more aware of social problems and have far more power to address them. At the same time, many have lost faith in governments. Social entrepreneurship allows people to align what they enjoy doing, what they are good at and what matters most to them and have a real impact. This is a very fulfilling and rewarding way to work and live. There are also major historical forces that have, for the first time in history, made social entrepreneurship feasible for many people in recent years. The growth of an educated middle class, the extension of basic rights to women and minorities and the spread of information technology have made it possible for hundreds of millions of people around the world to unleash their creativity in new directions. In recent decades, more than 80 countries that were formerly dictatorships, totalitarian societies or apartheid regimes have moved toward democracy. People today are better informed about social problems and they have both the desire and the ability to solve them.
Entrepreneurs love to be innovative. Contrary to assumption, they do not only seek to maximize profits. This is why so many innovators today are focusing on creating new solutions–new ways to do business, new ways to alleviate poverty, new ways to attack a host of social problems. (This trend seems to have accelerated since September 11th.) These people represent the second great wave of entrepreneurship, which I believe will become a major force in the 21st century. The first wave occurred in the business sector over the past three centuries and brought enormous wealth gains worldwide. The second wave aims at building upon the first wave to create a more humane and sustainable world.
Why are these ideas so successful? Are there commonalities between these social entrepreneurs despite their obvious differences?
When people hear about innovative businesses– think of eBay or Starbucks or Home Depot– they have an intuitive understanding about why the businesses were successful. In each case, you had a talented entrepreneur who saw an opportunity before others, who raised capital and built a high-performing organization capable of managing fast-paced growth. Social-change ideas that follow this pattern can and will be very successful. The problem is that, historically, this has not been the way social problems have been addressed. Society has not supported, financed or encouraged social entrepreneurs the way it has encouraged millions of business entrepreneurs. Rather, it has relied on top-down bureaucracies to handle the ‘non-business’ work of society. But that is changing today, with many more entrepreneurs starting social-change organizations and receiving support and encouragement.
Regardless of the field in which social entrepreneurs work–education, health, environment, disability, policy–the basic entrepreneurial process and temperament are the same. Entrepreneurs are obsessively driven to succeed; they are, therefore, good listeners; they build good teams; they pay close attention to what the ‘market’ tells them; they stay focused on long-term goals but continually adapt to changing environments; and they are always looking for new opportunities to grow and innovate. That is why their ideas are so successful.
So many governments are failing to implement change where social entrepreneurs are flourishing. How do you explain this phenomenon?
All too often, governments have attacked problems with a short-sighted, top-down approach that does not lead to innovative solutions. Governments have to respond to the demands of two- and four-year election cycles; entrepreneurs think in terms of building great companies or organizations over many decades. Additionally, rather than pursuing ideas through an organic, bottom-up ‘entrepreneurial’ process that encourages creativity and human initiative at each step of the way; governments are often organized for top-down bureaucratic processes that often dampen, or restrict, individual initiative. Finally, all ideas need “champions” to push them forward– people who are obsessed with making them work and will not give up until they succeed.
Many of these “champions” or entrepreneurs avoid working in government because they would rather not be constrained by political considerations and bureaucratic handcuffs; they prefer the freedom of building their own organizations. As a result, governments have difficulty attracting large numbers of entrepreneurs. However, there are examples when a “bureaucratic entrepreneur” within the government can have an enormous impact. One example is the case of Bill Drayton, who, as assistant administrator of the EPA, demonstrated the potential of “pollution trading” to cut pollution emissions–an idea that has since been adopted around the world. His story is detailed in the book.
How did you select the social entrepreneurs in How to Change the World? What were you aiming to profile?
The stories were selected, above all, because they are interesting and engaging, and because they span a range of countries and touch on a wide variety of issues–from education to health to environmental protection. The profiles capture all (humbly) and how they proceeded, step by step, over the years, to pursue their visions on an ever increasing scale. My goal was to demystify their success: to show how seemingly ordinary people and ordinary efforts, over time, can produce extraordinary results. I also wanted to draw on the entrepreneurs’ own words in explaining their decisions and actions, to make their methods and thinking easily understandable to others. When taken together, the profiles highlight many of the common factors that allow social entrepreneurs to succeed where others have failed.
Many of your social entrepreneurs are fellows of the organization Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. What was it about Ashoka that captured your interest?
Three things. First, it is very hard to find social entrepreneurs. There are no directories that list them. The newspapers don’t have sections that specialize in reporting on the most entrepreneurial social organizations. So in order to find them you need assistance from credible organizations. Ashoka pioneered the idea of searching for and channeling support to “pattern setting social entrepreneurs” more than 20 years ago. From what I have seen, it has developed the most rigorous search and selection process for identifying social entrepreneurs at relatively early stages in their careers. Using Ashoka’s network as a starting point made researching this book–which involved interviews with 100 social entrepreneurs in eight countries–a manageable job.
Second, the founder of Ashoka, Bill Drayton, is himself a social entrepreneur who has traveled around the world for two decades looking for other social entrepreneurs in order to support them. As such, Bill Drayton was a useful central character for the book–someone who could tie together many individual stories and add some key insights.
Third, Ashoka’s efforts to find social entrepreneurs have paralleled many of the changes that have occurred across the world in recent decades. Ashoka has generally begun working in countries shortly after those countries have experienced the democratic reforms that allow social entrepreneurs to flourish. The organization’s growth has, in effect, mirrored the spread of democracy and freedom over the past 20 years. So Bill Drayton’s efforts to expand Ashoka lends a natural narrative flow to the book that captures these global changes.
What do you see as the most important aspect of these social entrepreneurs?
The most important aspect of the social entrepreneurs is simply that one walks away after hearing their stories with the conviction that big problems can be solved. Their stories create a sense of possibility and hope and they encourage action because their ideas are practical and doable. We have become accustomed to low performance in the social arena. In the 1960s, for example, there was great optimism about what could be accomplished in the U.S. through government. Then came the Great Society, the war on poverty, and subsequent wars on crime and drugs, and countless failed development projects. Over the past four decades, expectations have plummeted.
Today, many people do not believe that we can alleviate poverty, or fix the education system, or improve government, or find better ways to deal with many social problems. Around the world, people are voting less and less. Amidst this disenchantment with government, the field of social entrepreneurship has emerged. Against the conventional wisdom, these leaders are demonstrating that problems can, in fact, be solved. But, in order to do so, society needs to think differently about the approach: It needs harness the wide-ranging talents of its best social entrepreneurs– encouraging them to innovate and pursue their visions. Just like in the business sector, there is no shortage of entrepreneurs, but there is not yet enough systematic support given to the social entrepreneurs.
How should budding social entrepreneurs go about implementing their ideas? Where should they begin?
Social entrepreneurs, like business entrepreneurs, should begin with what they know best and should focus on an idea or issue that resonates deeply in their lives. Entrepreneurs rarely come up with their ideas suddenly. Typically, they spend years thinking about them–often searching for the right moment in their lives to move forward. Sometimes their ideas can be traced all the way back to childhood interests. Before starting out on their own, they often work in jobs that teach them how a particular type of business or industry operates. Social entrepreneurs go through the same types of “apprenticeships.” They usually work for several years in a particular field, profession or organization, acquiring the knowledge, skills and contacts that enable them to branch out on their own and improve upon what is currently being done. Then they enter the “launch” phase–when they start preparing to build their own organizations. Again, like business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs usually begin by tapping their personal networks–friends, families, colleagues, teachers, mentors. They often start with a few well-selected tests of their ideas–to demonstrate early viability–and build credibility and momentum. They enlist advice from well-connected and experienced allies about how to raise funding, think through strategy, and build a team of supporters and advisors. There are many resources where social entrepreneurs can turn to for assistance during this launch phase. I list several of them in the Resource Guide in my book.
Do you envision social entrepreneurship reaching a saturation point?
No. Again, just like in the business sector, it is difficult to envision a time when there will be no more demand for new entrepreneurs. Society is ever-changing. Every day, people identify new opportunities and new needs. Business entrepreneurs build new businesses to satisfy those needs using a for-profit approach. Old companies go out of business; new ones open up. By the same token, there will always be new and different problems that social entrepreneurs will seek to address more effectively. Old organizations will stop functioning; new ones will have to be built to replace them. Consider some of the problems today that social entrepreneurs are addressing that were not major issues twenty years ago: global warming, AIDS, water shortages, providing better social and health services for an aging population, creating education systems that prepare people to succeed in the “information age.”
As social entrepreneurship grows and becomes recognized as a respectable and important line of work, society will begin to see a beneficial process in which new organizations with innovative solutions continually replace out-dated social organizations that have lost their performance edge or drifted from their original mission. This happens every day in the business sector. In the social sector, because the ‘social capital markets’ are not very efficient, the turnover is slower and less systematic. But today we are seeing more and more of the beneficial competition that leads to improvements and innovations. The social entrepreneurs are at the forefront of these changes.
Can anyone change the world?
There are two ways to answer this question. If ‘change the world’ means causing a major change that spreads across society and affects millions of people, the answer would have to be no. It takes a particular kind of person with a very deep need– someone who is totally obsessed with an idea — to bring about a social change on a major scale. These ‘leading’ or ‘ground-breaking’ social entrepreneurs are comparatively rare. (In fact, I’m not sure if society could tolerate large numbers of them.) On the other hand, if ‘change the world’ mean bringing a positive change to some corner of the globe– affecting the lives of one, ten, a hundred, or a thousand people, then, in my opinion, the answer is yes.
Researching this book has taught me that ordinary people have far more capacity and potential than they ever know or use. Many of the people I have interviewed who have done remarkable things are far from ‘extraordinary.’ The main quality they share is a belief that they can make a difference. They are not without self-doubts and they are not geniuses. But they have initiative, they listen to their instincts and they take action. Above all, they begin. I suspect that there are millions of people out there who could bring important changes to their corners of the world–and who would find great fulfillment doing so. If more parents and teachers and if society at large could encourage more people to try their hand at social entrepreneurship, I believe it would unleash enormous potential. It would also produce great benefits for society and much individual happiness.
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