• September 2012

David Bornstein Teaches Us "How to Change the World"

By David Bornstein, Journalist and Author
with Susan Davis, Chair, Grameen Foundation
From the introduction to their book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas

Is it possible to eradicate poverty? Extend healthcare to every corner of the world? Ensure that every child in every country receives a good education? These visions may seem beyond reach today, but the stories in this book reveal that we can, in fact, change the world in ways that seem unbelievable.

There is a hidden history unfolding today: an emerging landscape of innovators advancing solutions that have the potential to transform life around the globe.

We hear little about these solutions. Indeed, most of the news we receive focuses on the troubles in the world. Clearly, we face a cascade of challenges and dangers at home and abroad—and we need to know about them. But while we are inundated with stories of violence, corruption, and incompetence, we hear relatively little about the struggles and successes of the people who are advancing positive changes.

The ratio of problem-focused information to solution-focused information in the media is completely out of balance. It distorts reality; it is dispiriting; and it deprives people of the knowledge they need to properly assess risks and recognize opportunities.

If you were asked to list 10 prob lems facing the world, how long would it take? Two minutes? How long would it take you to list 10 solutions?

This book tells the stories of social entrepreneurs advancing systemic solutions to major social problems. Since 2004, when the first edition of this book was published, the field of social entrepreneurship has grown and attracted new levels of interest. The use of the term “social entrepreneur” in the media has roughly tripled.

Ashoka, founded by Bill Drayton (right) is the international network of social entrepreneurs whose work is chronicled in these pages. It has extended its reach into 20 new countries across Western Europe and the Middle East, as well as Turkey, Morocco, Afghanistan, and The Philippines.

The organization recently elected its first fellow in Saudi Arabia, a woman, and is now searching for social entrepreneurs in Israel and recruiting representatives in China and Japan. By the end of 2007, Ashoka directly supported 2,000 social entrepreneurs working in close to 70 countries.

Significantly, in two of the past three years, the Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded to social entrepreneurs: Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, in 2004, and Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in 2006. This may represent a shift in focus for an honor that has historically focused on the political arena.

In a speech at the Global Philanthropy Forum in 2007, Bill Clinton said that he looked forward to the day when Ashoka founder Bill Drayton, whose story is detailed in this book, would receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Across the world—from the Saïd Business School at Oxford University, to the IESE Business School of the University of Navarra in Spain, to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India, to the Fundacão Getulia Vargas in Brazil, to the Gordon Institute of Business Science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa—universities are studying social entrepreneurship in increasing numbers.

In the United States and Canada alone, more than 200 universities have established centers, courses, competitions, scholarships, or speaker series focusing on this field.

One of the most interesting initiatives is the Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship housed at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, which draws its fellows from the entire university, including the schools of education, dentistry, law, and medicine, thus demonstrating that there is a changemaker path for every student, whatever their specialty or major.

Everywhere you look, conceptual firewalls that once divided the world into social and economic realms are coming down, and people are engaging the world with their whole brains. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin established Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, they set it up as a for-profit firm so it could make grants or investments and also lobby the government. (In the future, there will likely be new legal designations for such social-benefit hybrid firms.)

The Omidyar Network, established by eBay’s founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, has invested some $90 million in businesses and nonprofit organizations in an effort to nurture environments that unleash people’s potential.

The Acumen Fund, a “nonprofit global venture fund,” has raised more than $40 million to make investments in companies that extend access to clean water, health products, and housing at affordable prices to people in underserved markets.

Similarly, Ashoka, which has invested $145 million to identify and support social entrepreneurs, is now advancing a framework by which its fellows can join forces with large corporations to create businesses that provide vital products and services to large groups of people whose needs are unmet.

From a different angle, Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay, has created a foundation and a for-profit film company that reinforce each other’s efforts. While the Skoll Foundation has provided $55 million to support social entrepreneurs, Participant Productions has developed an array of mainstream films that build public awareness about the same issues that social entrepreneurs focus on—such as environmental protection (“An Inconvenient Truth”), economic inequality and health (“Fast Food Nation”) and cross-cultural understanding (“The World According to Sesame Street”). Click here for our Q&A with Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University.

Conventional business is also looking more holistic.

Over the past five years, more than $8 billion in venture capital has been invested in the United States in “clean technology” companies, making it the third largest category for venture investment. Global firms like General Electric, General Motors, and Office Depot are pursuing business opportunities that decrease their environmental impact with help from “sustainability strategy” firms like GreenOrder. AOL-founder Steve Case has created Revolution Health in an effort to put “consumers at the center of the health system.”

MinuteClinics located in retail stores are simplifying the delivery of healthcare for basic ailments. Microfinance is being taken up by banking giants like Citigroup, while a new generation of dot.coms and dot.orgs such as Prosper.com, Kiva.org, eloan.com, and PRBC.com are expanding access to credit and connecting borrowers to lenders in ways that would have seemed unimaginable a few years ago.

In just the past three years, the Philanthropy Services of UBS, the world’s largest wealth manager, has organized 20 conferences in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, to introduce social entrepreneurship to thousands of high net-worth clients so they can think more strategically about their philanthropy.

Elected officials are also beginning to recognize that social entrepreneurs are ideal partners, whether they are looking for well-tested policy ideas, staffers who know how to implement, or street-savvy organization builders with keen political instincts. However, unlike corporate lobbyists, social entrepreneurs are not yet routinely invited to the table when public policy is being made.

There are some efforts of note. In Louisiana, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, facing post-Katrina and Rita challenges, has established an Office of Social Entrepreneurship, while a number of U.S. mayors, including Shirley Franklin in Atlanta, John Hickenlooper in Denver, Bart Peterson in Indianapolis, Willie Herenton in Memphis, Michael Bloomberg in New York, and Francis Slay in St. Louis, have taken steps to engage with innovative citizen groups.

Additionally, over the past three years, New Profit Inc., a leading funder that helps social entrepreneurs accelerate their growth, has convened an annual gathering and created an “Action Tank” (an action-oriented think tank) to strengthen the relationship between social entrepreneurs, policymakers, and elected officials in order to better address problems at the local, state, and national levels.

Indeed, social entrepreneurs are uniquely suited to make headway on problems that have resisted considerable money and intelligence.

Where governments and traditional organizations look at problems from the outside, social entrepreneurs come to understand them intimately, from within. Through a persistence of looking, they discover the mistaken assumptions that lead policymakers astray.

Because they do not have armies or police forces behind them, they work to elicit change rather than impose it, so they build human capacity rather than encouraging dependency. In developing countries where they have engaged at top levels with governments, the results have been impressive. In Thailand, such partnerships produced amazingly successful family planning and AIDS-prevention programs, and, in Brazil, they led to the most enlightened AIDS-treatment program in the developing world.

Admittedly, relatively few social entrepreneurs have achieved the levels of scale needed to excite state- and national-level policymakers. Most successful social entrepreneurs in the United States and Canada would be considered small- or micro-caps if they were businesses.

But that is a function of the lack of structural supports to expand their organizations, not a lack of growth potential. In fact, the greatest risk to social entrepreneurship today is the shortage of growth financing necessary to build a critical mass of organizations that can achieve major and visible—i.e. national-level—success.

Don’t stop now! Click here to read more.

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