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.
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.
It is a risk because social entrepreneurs need to be able to match the excitement and rising expectations they are generating.
And, in order to do so, they will have to recruit large numbers of talented people from other sectors and offer them solid, long-term career opportunities and competitive salaries. Whether the funding will come from governments, investors, foundations, citizen-based support, or self-generated revenues, or combinations of these sources, there is an urgent need to build a wide array of ﬁnancial services that will unlock the trapped potential in our midst—or the potential will be lost.
In June 2006, Bill Gates announced that he would soon give up his job running Microsoft in favor of running his foundation full time. “It’s not a retirement, it’s a reordering of my priorities,” explained the world’s wealthiest man. Ten days later, Warren Buffett, the world’s second wealthiest man, announced that he would soon start giving away his $40 billion fortune, most of it to the Gates Foundation, which focuses primarily on global health.
The news of their decisions quickly circulated around the globe.
I happened to be interviewing a Buddhist monk in Taiwan the following week, and one of the ﬁrst questions he asked me was: “What do you think of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett?”
Their decisions echo the changes many people are making today. In rich and poor countries alike, it is common to ﬁnd the “best and brightest”—young people with an array of options—choosing work that allows them an opportunity for social impact. In 2006, for example, more than 19,000 high-scoring college graduates across the United States, including 10 percent of Yale and Dartmouth seniors, applied to Teach for America.
In 2006 and 2007, the Acumen Fund received close to 1,100 applications from MBAs for 15 fellowship positions. The Bridgespan Group, a consulting ﬁrm connected to Bain & Company that provides strategic assistance to social-action organizations, recently received 1,800 applications for 18 job openings. Starting Bloc, whose Institute for Social Innovation attracts “socially conscious” students and young professionals who seek to pursue careers that contribute to a “just global economy,” saw its applicant pool jump from 200 students in 2003 to 2,400 in 2005.
On the other end of the age spectrum, in 2006, Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based group that helps society achieve the “greatest return on experience,” launched the Purpose Prize to celebrate Americans over the age of 60 who, in lieu of retirement, have pursued “encore careers” that focus on social contribution.
In its ﬁrst two years, the prize received more than 2,000 nominations, including entries from every U.S. state. In a survey of 1,000 people sponsored by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, nearly 60 percent of interviewees in their 50s said they were interested in “reordering their priorities to put social impact front and center.” For 20 percent of respondents, this was a “top priority.”
I have found myself in a good vantage point to watch these developments.
They follow a pattern I have seen before. When my ﬁrst book, The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank, was published in 1996, I had the opportunity to roughly gauge the interest in the bank, and micro-credit in general, by the number of people who contacted me requesting information or inquiring about interviews or speaking engagements.
For about three years, the interest was minimal. On a few occasions, I traveled to college campuses to give talks and less than a dozen students attended. Once, I had the memorable experience of arriving at a bookstore to give a talk on the Grameen Bank, only to discover that not a single person had shown up.
However, beginning around 1999, the invitations and requests started coming in more often, and I got the feeling that something was brewing.
Soon, interest began ﬂowing in from business groups, funders, educators, policymakers, college students, and others. “Micro-credit” was breaking out beyond the development audience to mainstream groups. Within a few years, it seemed that everybody was interested in the Grameen Bank (which was then 25 years old) and a new ﬁeld that had come to be known as “micro-ﬁnance.”
These days, even before Yunus and the bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a lecture at a university on the Grameen Bank is likely to attract hundreds of students; in many cases, people will be turned away at the door. As Susan Davis, the chair of the Grameen Foundation, has noted: “The movement gave birth to an industry.”
And this has, in turn, produced enormous impact: Today, thousands of micro-ﬁnance organizations are assisting close to half a billion people (borrowers and their families) living on less than $1 a day. This has put the world on track to fulﬁll the Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015.
Today, the ﬁeld of social entrepreneurship appears to be growing at a similar pace. Initially, after publication of this book, interest came in from foundations and development organizations and the occasional business school.
At the time, relatively few people had heard of the Ashoka Fellowship. But within a year, I began to see that the stories in the book were resonating far beyond the likely sources. I started receiving requests for information and speaking invitations from groups I had never heard of: student networks, health organizations, business networks, religious groups, foundation boards, university extension programs, agricultural agencies, leadership programs, community colleges, investment banks, accounting ﬁrms, consulting ﬁrms, the World Council of Credit Unions, the American Association of Diabetes Educators, the Fargo Forum, the Iowa Community Action Association, the Community Health Endowment of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Much to my amazement, in three years, I received 300 speaking invitations and spoke with more than 150 audiences in 30 U.S. states, several Canadian provinces, and a dozen other countries. I saw that people were yearning to hear stories that highlighted solutions and, more important, I discovered that many of the people I met were also deeply involved in changing the world.
Then I was invited to give a talk at the Parsons School of Design in New York.
In preparation, I reviewed the thesis projects of the students. It was like getting a glimpse into the future.
There were no coffeemakers or end tables to be found: the students were designing lightweight and attractive walkers for older people; stylized wheelchairs with racing stripes; a self-starter kit to teach Ugandan youths woodworking skills; portable therapeutic play aids to assist children affected by disasters; video games that teach about environmental destruction and protection; “Life Review Therapy,” a game to provide memory assistance to people with Alzheimer’s; designer clothing for women who have had mastectomies; comfortable airline seats for passengers with disabilities.
The faculty hadn’t pushed the students in this direction. Just the reverse: the students were leading the way, forcing the school to revise its curriculum.
I saw a similar pattern in schools of business, public policy, public health, urban planning, and international relations. Everywhere, people were asking similar questions: Do we need to go faster? Do we need to consume more? What does the world really need? And they were actively exploring new pathways.
That is why I believe that the ﬁeld of social entrepreneurship has the potential to galvanize major changes across society.
It is full of stories that can encourage people to follow through on their impulses to ﬁx things and right wrongs. Rather than causing people to turn up their hands in resignation, as the news often does, these stories nurture a pragmatic brand of optimism and unleash the energy that can drive change.
After hearing such stories, people often inquire: How do I get involved in this kind of work? Can I encourage the people in my organization to think like problem-solvers? How do I tap my own potential to cause change?
These exposures helped me to see that changemakers are far more numerous than I had previously imagined, and their work takes myriad forms.
Some people like to start things, others prefer to play supporting roles. Still, others work as “intrapreneurs”—quietly and deftly redirecting schools, colleges, social agencies, hospitals, churches, and businesses from within. Nor is this activity conﬁned to the young.
As a screener for Civic Venture’s Purpose Prize, I had the privilege to learn about hundreds of people across the United States who had launched social innovations while in their 60s, 70s and 80s. In fact, my grand aunt, Selma Arnold, who is 93, continues to be an active board member for Project Open, an organization that she established at age 76 to assist elderly residents in a large apartment complex in New York. [Editor’s note: Selma Arnold died in 2010.]
All this has taught me that social entrepreneurship, like business entrepreneurship, has many levels to it.
There are those, like the people described in this book, who are driven to pursue change at the national or global level. They are relentless and their efforts, in many cases, are truly heroic. But we also need a lens to recognize the heroic efforts that take place in front of our noses. Social entrepreneurship is not about a few extraordinary people saving the day for everyone else.
At its deepest level, it is about revealing possibilities that are currently unseen and releasing the capacity within each person to reshape a part of the world. It does not require an elite education; it requires a backpack.
The corpus of knowledge in social entrepreneurship comes from ﬁrsthand engagement with the world—from asking lots of questions and listening and observing with a deep caring to understand.
Just before I completed this book, I became a father.
My son, Elijah, is now 3. And I wonder: How do I bring him up to believe in himself and his ability to shape the world? To respect his own ideas and trust his inner voice? To care deeply about others?
At a time when social entrepreneurship has been taken up in business schools across the world, I look forward to the day when it will be taught in grade schools and Kindergarten classes.
Because these stories are not about markets, or sustainability, or efﬁciency. They are stories of people who cannot stand to watch others suffer, people who cannot stand to see others missing opportunities they should have.
They are stories about people who remove shackles, who bring others along. In a world of rapid and unpredictable change, the leading social entrepreneurs and the millions of changemakers, with their tentacles and sensors touching every corner of the globe, represent a far better mechanism to respond to needs than we have ever had before—a decentralized and emergent force that, if properly ﬁnanced, governed, and wired together, remains our best hope to construct a framework of solutions that can keep pace with our problems and create a more peaceful world.
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 which 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.