Lessons from the 2009 Walden Social Change Conference

Revisioning Social Entrepreneurship

By Deirdre Schwiesow
January 2010

On September 30, 2009, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., 168 attendees—including members of the Walden University community as well as the general public—gathered for Walden’s fifth annual Social Change Conference. Some 600 others attended virtually through a live webcast of the event.

The topic of this year’s conference, “Social Entrepreneurship: Taking Action, Leading Change,” brought together luminaries in the field to discuss how the phenomenon of social entrepreneurship is breaking down the traditional barriers between government, business, and the nonprofit world, and what we can learn from the experiences of successful social entrepreneurs.

The State of Social Entrepreneurship Now

In his opening remarks, President Jonathan Kaplan said social entrepreneurs “bring together concern for the public good with the innovation and drive required in a market economy. They believe the same entrepreneurial spirit that has driven great economic progress can also foster new solutions to complex social problems all over the world.”

Social entrepreneurship or social innovation, said conference speaker Michele Jolin, senior advisor for social innovation for the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, is “about new and different and better ways to solve social problems.” Other terms for social entrepreneurship include “philanthrocapitalism” and “venture philanthropy,” but the overall idea is the same—aligning business principles and practices with the drive to make a difference.

“Social entrepreneurship has existed as long as there have been social problems,” said panelist Anthony Jewett, president of Bardoli Global, an organization that provides study-abroad opportunities to minority scholars. However, social entrepreneurship as a field is relatively new—the term has only ascended in the past 25 to 30 years—explained speaker Dr. Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that awards start-up capital to social entrepreneurs.

Panelist David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, discussed the history of social entrepreneurship. “Social entrepreneurship 1.0” was focused on individual entrepreneurs, he said. “Social entrepreneurship 2.0,” which started about 10 years ago, was about creating institutions to cause social change. And today, “social entrepreneurship 3.0,” said Bornstein, “is really the recognition that social change requires a whole ecosystem” with many different actors.

In this context, social entrepreneurs are increasingly “sector-agnostic,” said Bornstein—crossing traditional barriers between business, government, and the social sector and using “whatever tool fits.” And social entrepreneurial organizations are no longer necessarily nonprofits; they may be forprofits and hybrid entities.
In the U.S., Jolin explained, the Obama administration is committed to expanding support for social innovation, beginning with the national service bill—the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act—that the President signed in April 2009. “We also are focused on expanding opportunities for more participation in communities for those people who may not be able to give up a year or two of their time,” Jolin said. The administration hopes to encourage public/private partnerships and create a climate for more innovation in the nonprofit sector through, among other things, the proposed Social Innovation Fund, which will help successful nonprofits expand their reach.

Panelist Dr. John Nirenberg, a Walden faculty member and author of Global Leadership, believes increased social entrepreneurship is a necessity now: “We are at a transition point … you see problems that neither government alone nor business alone has been able to address,” he said. “If we don’t do it ourselves, it won’t get done.”

In terms of trends, Dorsey believes that increased attention to social innovation is “going to change the conversation on civic engagement and civic partnership.” She predicts more partnerships between the three sectors—“the opportunity for more resources to be conjoined”—as well as increased participation from retiring Baby Boomers.

What it Takes to be a Social Entrepreneur

What does an effective social entrepreneur look like? Dorsey, who has helped to develop a Social Entrepreneurship Quotient (SEQ)—a list of qualities that distinguish social entrepreneurs from other people in the nonprofit world—explained that, among other qualities, they:

1) Are “phenomenal resource magnets”—they can leverage financial capital from numerous sources and attract “evangelists” to their cause
2) Have an “asset-based worldview”—they see problems as opportunities
3) Realize they’re part of a larger organization/ movement—it’s not about the person as an individual

Revisioning Social Entrepreneurship“Social entrepreneurs are some of the best experts I’ve ever seen in their issue area,” she said, advising social entrepreneurs to “know your issue cold.” This may involve doing additional academic work, going to work for an existing organization, or working with the community you want to serve. The value of “experiential learning,” Dorsey said, cannot be overstated.

Most importantly, effective social entrepreneurs are totally committed, said Dorsey. When it comes to predicting who will be successful, “I will bet on a passionate leader any day of the week,” she said. “I want someone who gets up every day, who is completely accountable to and responsible for that problem, who has the ability to execute, and who will stop at nothing to get there.” (For David Bornstein’s thoughts about the qualities that make a good social entrepreneur, see sidebar.)

What You Can Do

Jewett noted that one of the drawbacks of starting your own organization is that you can end up spending more of your time dealing with the business end of things than focusing on your passion. “In hindsight … I probably would’ve leaned toward being more of an intrapreneur,” he explained.

However, whether you create your own organization, work as an intrapreneur by pursuing social innovation within an established organization, or do something as simple as “microvolunteering” by logging onto a Web site such as The Extraordinaries (www.beextra.org), you can make a difference. “Everyone can be—and in some ways, some people would argue, should be—a change-maker, because change-making is actually a very powerful way to live,” said Bornstein. “If you see a problem in front of you, you say, ‘I have the skills and the understandings to actually change the situation.’”

Whatever the context, the first step, said Jewett, is to “start off with the recognition of a problem.” You then “go to the definition of the problem,” which then allows you to “put together what you think could be the beginning of a solution to it.”

Panel moderator Peter Kannam, executive director of New Leaders for New Schools in Maryland, stressed, “There’s need everywhere, but what really hits home for you? What is your passion? … What means the most for you? And where do you want to make the most difference?”

For social entrepreneurs, taking action “really begins by somebody making a phone call and saying, ‘Hey, I have an idea. Can I have lunch with you and discuss it with you?’ And you start a relationship,” said Bornstein, who suggested taking an inventory of people who care about the same issues that you do and recruiting them. Once you have buy-in, an important key in effectively spearheading a cause, said Nirenberg, is learning “how to share the energy in a way that is empowering to others without diminishing the cause.”

Measuring Impact

Getting started is one thing, but if your goal is social change, how do you measure social return on investment?

According to panelist Dr. Kathia Castro Laszlo, Walden University faculty member and co-founder and executive director of Syntony Quest, “The easy part is the financial part: ‘Are you viable? Where’s your break-even point?’ … But when it comes down to the social and/or environmental impact that you are seeking to have … what are the indicators that are going to really give you a sense of ‘Are you making progress?’” Impact must be measured not only in terms of the number of people you impact—quantitatively—but also qualitatively: What are those people thinking and feeling?

Dorsey agreed that “attention to outcomes, metrics, and measurements is a really important part of the social entrepreneurship and social change conversation these days.” The challenge is in creating relevant metrics. “Every organization has their own metric or way of measuring impact,” Bornstein explained. “But it’s really related to their idea of the changes that they want to create.”

Challenging as it may be to judge your progress, another consideration is the impact that pursuing social entrepreneurship has on you and your life. As Laszlo put it, becoming a social entrepreneur is about “a shift from looking at how to make a living to how to make a life.” Or, as Nirenberg said about switching to a career in social entrepreneurship, “What’s reported most often is an incredible sense of purpose.”

6 Characteristics of Successful Social Entrepreneurs

After the conference, David Bornstein spoke to Walden about social entrepreneurship in more depth. Bornstein’s newest book, Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know, co-authored with Susan Davis, was published in January 2010. Here, he discusses characteristics of successful social entrepreneurs.

Social entrepreneurs are:

1) Empathetic. “In general, social entrepreneurs are people who recruit other people into an organization to advance a new idea. So they have to be able to excite other people with possibilities. They generally have a lot of empathy because they have to be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes in order to get them excited and to recruit them.”

2) Not Afraid to Fail. “They tend to be the kind of people who learn more through experimentation than relying on theory, although they use theory. So they really are people who take ideas, try them out, usually have failures in their early versions, but then instead of stopping and quitting, they sort of fail forward—they keep trying.”

3) Boundary-crossers. “People who are effective social entrepreneurs … have multiple cultural exposures—they often have exposures across sectoral boundaries, meaning that they may have worked in the private sector, in the social or nonprofit sector, or in government, or all three, so they’re able to really see things from different points of view. And also, if they’re working with a community, whether it’s in India or in an inner city in the United States, they really understand what you might call the symbolic universe of that community, so they very often have primary experience talking to people in that community.”

4) Inspirational. “You get buy-in and support from community members by exciting them about the impact that you can create and how that will satisfy their goals.”

5) Facilitators. “What social entrepreneurs do when they’re at their best is they create platforms that enable many, many other people to make contributions that they couldn’t make before because those platforms didn’t exist. But the bottom line is you must give people opportunities where they can express their love and their respect and their caring for other people. If you do that, you’ll never have a shortage of people wanting to work with you, because that’s inherently joyful and motivating.”

6) Visionary. “The most universal pattern that I’ve seen around the world among social entrepreneurs is finding ways to unleash trapped potential in everybody.”

Tabletop Discussions

The Social Change Conference concluded with a working luncheon, during which participants discussed social entrepreneurship in K-12 education, public service, and green innovation. Here, a look at some of the questions raised and points made from these discussions.

Education: Teaching (K-12)

  • "There is a lot of emphasis on teaching to the state tests rather than teaching children how to think critically-we are leaving behind those children (mostly underserved) who do not do well on standardized tests."
  • Emerging concepts of social/emotional intelligence should be researched to understand their impact on students' social development.
  • "When we ask why the U.S. [school] systems are so poor, we should look at some successful international models."
  • "Charter schools are good examples of models that are working in our schooling system. … The question becomes, 'How do you get something that works in a small environment to work in a large environment?'"
  • "We don't need to recreate the wheel. If there is someone out there who is doing it, let's take the best parts of that model and adapt them to what we are doing."

Public Service

  • "Advice to anyone working in the public sector is to check pride at the door, listen, and practice the skill of patience."
  • How can a social entrepreneur engage a community with limited resources? By enacting grass roots, door-to-door outreach; gaining trust by asking people what they want/need; really communicating with and "getting to know and understand people."
  • An organization can be sustainable if it is run like a business: "Customer service is key." The challenge is to balance passion with business minutia (office, logistics, business processes, and requirements).
  • To run a sustainable organization, "you need passion with a plan," as well as measurable outcomes and metrics. Government metrics for these organizations are not always relevant. Perhaps it is important to "teach" the government about the best metrics for each individual venture.

Green Innovation

  • Community and corporate initiatives "work together to make a whole."
  • We need corporate innovation that works versus innovation that just sounds good, i.e., is about "spin."
  • "Innovations that take hold are the ones that will save money, particularly in this economy."
  • How can the government support green initiatives at the ground level? Tax breaks?
  • Who will address the "Bermuda Triangle of trash?" There are small, personal initiatives to develop a plan for cleaning it up-"it would be truly symbolic to come together internationally and collaboratively to clean it up."
  • Every baby step adds to bigger steps-collective steps to a greater whole are what will make a difference.