• November 2012

Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know

By David Bornstein (pictured right) and
Susan Davis (pictured below)

For much of the past decade, the specter of 9/11 has hovered like a dark cloud, a stark reminder that we have entered a new and dangerous phase of human history—one in which small groups of determined individuals can cause massive destruction and destabilize nations. The global dispersion of power—knowledge, technology, and organizing capability—has forced governments to rethink the basis of human security.

The same recognition has also led many to rethink the way we organize to address our most pressing global problems. Just as individuals and small groups have more destructive capability than in the past, they have more constructive capability. Individuals can effect positive change far more effectively and on a far greater scale than ever before.

This is fortuitous because the need for change in many areas has never been more urgent.

The United Nations recently reported that, as a result of the financial crisis, one billion people face hunger. Hundreds of millions of women and girls die prematurely due to violence or the denial of medical care.

Deadly diseases circulate around the globe with astonishing rapidity. Coral reefs are being destroyed, species are going extinct, fresh water reserves are being depleted, global warming is accelerating—all at alarming rates. At home, we struggle to fix health care and financial systems that have run dangerously out of control.

Many respond to the onslaught of problems by tuning out the world, getting lost in trivial distractions, or adopting an attitude of cynical detachment, perhaps a defense against anxiety or fear.

But today many are also responding to global challenges with creativity, energy, and even optimism.

They are attacking these and other global problems with powerful new ideas and tools. They see problems that traditional institutions are ignoring, but instead of merely registering protest, they are building new solutions.

This story has gone under-reported. Indeed, even as we are inundated with news and information around the clock, the proliferation of people—millions of them—who are building new organizations to address social problems remains largely hidden from view. People know far more about the world’s problems than about the world’s problem-solvers. This book is an effort to draw attention to their efforts.

Collectively, we refer to the landscape of organizations created by citizens in recent decades as the citizen sector, and we believe that social entrepreneurship represents its leading edge. This book outlines some of the historical underpinnings of this global phenomenon and suggests implications for the future.

Taken as a whole, the question that today’s legion of changemakers are attempting to answer is: How do we reorganize global society so that it can adapt rapidly, on an ongoing basis, to an ever-changing array of unforeseeable and increasingly critical problems?

Because of the size of the global population, the pace of change, the spread of technology, the urgency of financial, health, and environmental crises, and the interdependence that has collapsed boundaries, we no longer have the luxury of responding to crises as they emerge. We must anticipate problems before they grow large and attack them at their sources as early as possible—like alien invasive species before they multiply.

The emergence of the citizen sector and the field of social entrepreneurship seems to be the response that the collective human mind has devised to meet this challenge.

It represents a shift away from the top-down, centralized problem-solving model that dominated the past century, in favor of an integrated, decentralized dynamic that harnesses the efforts of creative problem-solvers scattered around the globe. Like sentries or antibodies, today’s changemakers must remain continually alert to new threats and new opportunities.

We are just beginning to grasp how these developments are transforming global society.

Consider some of the innovations we have seen in the past few decades.

  • New institutions provide access to credit and financial services, expanding economic opportunities for hundreds of millions of poor people and mitigating the effects of global recessions;
  • They deliver quality education to places beyond the reach of power lines or asphalt;
  • They release people from illness and save children from early deaths by expanding access to vaccines, micronutrients, medicines, and clean water;
  • They use political and advocacy strategies to attack the backwardness that leads people to be excluded because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability;
  • They teach skills such as empathy that allow people to function successfully in groups and make contributions to society;
  • They restructure businesses and redesign products to protect and restore the environment; and
  • They form international networks that protect and enforce human rights at the global level.

The list goes on.

Although these organizations attack problems from many angles, they share one common feature: building platforms that unleash human potential. They seek to build a world in which more people can participate more fully in the social and economic life of their societies.

It takes many different kinds of actors to advance major change. We need people who initiate new ideas and institutions (or renew old ones); a larger number who collaborate in building those institutions directly; and a much larger number who support those efforts through financing, advocacy, policy-making, research, teaching, and so forth.

Over the past quarter century, the field of social entrepreneurship has evolved a better understanding of the interplay between these roles.

If we describe the evolution of thinking like generations of the worldwide Web, we might break it down as follows:

Social entrepreneurship 1.0 was focused on:

  • Finding ways to systematically identify leading social entrepreneurs around the world—people with innovative new ideas and practical models for achieving major societal impact;
  • Describing these social entrepreneurs, articulating their function in society, and shining a spotlight on their work to bring visibility; and
  • Developing early support systems to help them achieve significant social impact.

Social entrepreneurship 2.0 shifted into the terrain of organizational excellence. It drew heavily on insights from business strategy, finance, and management and focused on helping social entrepreneurs build sustainable, high-impact organizations or enterprises. Many people with expertise in the business sector were attracted to the field during this phase as they discovered new avenues to apply their talents.

Social entrepreneurship 3.0 (today) looks beyond individual founders and institutions to the changemaking potential of all people.

  • It recognizes that social entrepreneurship is inherently contagious. When we see others carving out new pathways, acting creatively, powerfully, and meaningfully, we seek to emulate them. As the field of social entrepreneurship has gained visibility in recent years (even though it is still far from mainstream), it has quickly attracted new entrants. For every person who starts a social-change organization, hundreds or thousands collaborate in building and supporting that organization.
  • It focuses on the full ecosystem and looks to help people at every age and in every field—from schoolchildren to octogenarians, from policymakers to business people—learn how to be more effective changemakers at whatever level they feel prepared to act. The goal is to help people recognize where they can contribute based on their interests and abilities, and to create linkages across sector and cultural boundaries so solutions circulate and can be replicated, adapted, and integrated into systems.
  • It redefines the relationships between government, business, and the citizen sector. We believe that governments will come to see social entrepreneurs as the driving force of new policy ideas and practical change models, and that businesses will take a more proactive stance towards solving problems and reaching out to underserved markets via partnerships with the citizen sector. In the years ahead, we believe many more citizens will take the lead in creating solutions for society. A quarter century ago, it took unusual confidence and defiance to become a social entrepreneur. Today, the path is becoming more and more clear.

That is why, despite the daunting array of problems outlined above, we remain hopeful.

There is no way of knowing whether the constructive forces in the world will overcome the destructive forces. But considering the recent historical changes that have unshackled people and allowed so many to take concerted action to solve problems, one’s spirits can’t help but be buoyed.

Our hope is that you will discover in this book ideas that spark your excitement, expand your sense of possibility, and perhaps point the way to your own changemaking path.

Click here to buy Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.


About David Bornstein

David Bornstein is a journalist and author who focuses on social innovation. He co-created the popular “Fixes” column in The New York Times “Opinionator” section, a touchstone for the emerging solutions-journalism field. He is the founder of Dowser.org.

His books include How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank, and Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know, as well as a forthcoming book that will highlight key patterns in social innovation.

Bornstein received the 2007 Human Security Award from the University of California, and the 2008 Award for Leadership in Social Entrepreneurship from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. For more information, visit davidbornstein.wordpress.com.

About Susan Davis

Susan Davis is a thought leader in international development and civil society innovation. She is a founder and current president & CEO of BRAC USA, a newly created organization to support BRAC’s global expansion to Africa and other countries in Asia. In addition she was a founding board member and chair of the Grameen Foundation and a current board member.

She also serves on the international board committee that selects Ashoka Fellows and is a mentor and coach for the NYU Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship.

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