A new generation of social leaders is rising up. These are people who dedicate their creativity and passion for a better world. They are able to do this because changing political realities around the world have created new opportunities for citizen involvement. As ‘social entrepreneurs’, they find new ways to approach problems — and they won’t rest until they’ve realised their aim. This cover story of Ode is about the people that use their unique talents to create a meaningful existence, for themselves and others
Everyone knows about the boom and bust and recent revival of dot.coms but many have still not heard of a much bigger story: the worldwide explosion of dot.orgs. It is a story with far-reaching implications. These independent, socially-conscious organisations are reorganizing the way work gets done in the world. Small groups of committed people can shift the attitudes and practices of businesses, improve the results of government initiatives, and open up opportunities for us all to apply our talents in new, positive ways. This emerging sector of society is making a significant impact on the course of the 21st Century.
Many dot.org groups have been founded by a new breed of public leader, known as social innovators, or ‘social entrepreneurs’. They are usually inspired by powerful ideas to restore the environment and improve people’s lives, which they have implemented in their local communities, native countries, and, in some cases, the world. They bring electricity in far-off corners in Brazil, they are marketing fair trade coffee, they found a twenty-four-hour helpline and emergency response system for Indian children in distress, they create networks of centres that provide assisted living for disabled people in Hungary, they join micro-finance institutions in rural villages in Bolivia, they promote reading and access to books in South Africa, they promote college access for low-income students in Washington. These organizations are having a profound effect on society, yet their important role remains little understood and underappreciated in many circles.
The idea of the ‘social entrepreneur’ is slowly gaining popularity. Some of America’s leading universities now offer courses in social entrepreneurship. Journalists, philanthropists and activists frequently invoke the term. However, most of this attention has been focused on how conventional business and management skills can be applied to achieve social ends – for example, how nonprofit groups can operate for-profit ventures to generate revenues. While this is an important trend, social entrepreneurs should also be seen as a transformative force: people with bold ideas to address major issues who are dogged in the pursuit of their visions, people who will not take ‘no’ for an answer, who will not give up until they have spread these ideas as far as they possibly can.
Social entrepreneurship is fast becoming established as a vocation, not only in the United States, Canada and Europe, but increasingly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Around the world, people are encountering similar problems: inadequate education and health systems, environmental threats, declining trust in political institutions, entrenched poverty, high crime rates and so forth. But in poorer countries, social entrepreneurs have to reach far more people with far less money, so they have to be especially innovative to advance solutions at scale.
The rise of social entrepreneurship can be seen as the leading edge of a remarkable development occurring across the world over the past three decades: the emergence of millions of new citizen organisations. “It’s got to strike you that a quarter of a century ago outside the United States there were very few NGOs [nongovernmental organisations involved in development and social work] and now there are millions of them all over the globe,” notes Peter Goldmark, who was the president of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1988 to 1997. “Nobody could make that happen at the same time. Why did they grow? They grew because the seed was there and the soil was right. You have restless people seeking to deal with problems that were not being successfully coped with by existing institutions. They escaped the old formats and were driven to invent new forms of organisations.”
Twenty years ago, for example, Indonesia had only one independent environmental organisation. Today it has more than 2,000. In Bangladesh, most of the country’s development work is handled by 20,000 NGOs; almost all them were established in the past 25 years. India has well over a million citizen organisations. Slovakia, a tiny country, has more than 12,000. Between 1988 and 1995, 100,000 citizen groups opened shop in the former communist countries of Central Europe. In France, during the 1990s, an average of 70,000 new citizen groups were established each year, quadruple the figure for the 1960’s. In Canada, the number of registered citizen groups has grown by more than 50 percent since 1987, reaching close to 200,000. In Brazil, during the 1990’s, the number of registered citizen organisations jumped from 250,000 to 400,000, a 60 percent increase.
Like business firms in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, citizens organizations in recent decades have gone from being a tightly restricted social sector to one that enjoys more or less open opportunity to act. Major barriers – government obstruction, lack of access to capital, communication costs – have significantly dropped. Consequently, millions of people have rushed into newly formed citizens groups.
Historically, these organisations have been defined in the negative – as nonprofit or nongovernmental organisations. Today they are understood to comprise a new ‘sector’, variously dubbed the ‘independent sector’, ‘nonprofit sector’, ‘third sector’, or, the term I favor, the ‘citizen sector’, Hundreds of U.S. universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Duke and Johns Hopkins, have established college courses and centers to study this sector. In New York City, during the 1990s, while overall employment grew by only four percent, employment in the citizen sector grew by 25 percent. Similarly, a Johns Hopkins study of eight developed countries found that, between 1990 and 1995, employment in this sector grew two and a half times faster than for the overall economy.
Governments and international organisations, including the United Nations and the World Bank, routinely enlist the advice of citizen groups. Businesses increasingly form marketing partnerships with them. In the years ahead, newspapers may introduce new sections to cover the citizen sector just as they introduced stand-alone business sections in the 1970’s.
These changes represent a dramatic shift in the way the ‘noncommercial’ or ‘social’ business of society is structured. Around the world, this work has been dominated by centralised top-down and usually governmental institutions. This makes sense from the perspective that governments are responsible for translating the will of the citizenry into public policy and projects. But governments are often not the ideal vehicles to carry out social R%amp%D, just as they are not the ideal vehicles to create new businesses. Just as in business, advancing new ideas and creating new models to attack problems require an entrepreneur’s single-minded vision and fierce determination, along with lots of energy and time.
Millions of people think about starting businesses, not just to make money, but to experience the excitement of seeing their ideas take shape in the world and enjoy the satisfaction of working for themselves. This sort of opportunity exists today in the citizen sector as well. Given the right financial and social incentives, more people would probably jump into starting their own social-change organizations, or helping others do it. In years to come, social entrepreneurship might become one of the career options that gets discussed at the dinner table.
There is a personal side to this story. Social entrepreneurs share the desires of people everywhere: to apply their talents in ways that bring security, recognition and meaning – and to have some fun. What has changed in recent years is that the citizen sector now offers ample chances to satisfy those needs: to align what you care about, what you are good at and what you enjoy doing – every day – and have real impact in the world.
Of course, not everyone is, or wants to be, a social entrepreneur, just as not everyone wants to start a business. But almost everyone now has the option to participate in this new sector. Because it is growing so fast and in so many directions, the opportunities are wide open for people with diverse interests and skills. Citizen organizations desperately need good managers, marketers, finance experts, public relations agents, technology professionals, writers, salespeople, artists, accountants, filmmakers and so forth. Depending on the mission, they also need agronomists, chemists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, biologists, architects, songwriters, engineers, mechanics, publishers, urban planners, psychologists, and the like. And, increasingly, traditional businesses need employees and managers who appreciate the social and environmental dimensions of their work and who can spot opportunities to collaborate with this ‘other’ entrepreneurial sector.
For anyone who has ever said, “This isn’t working” or “We can do better!” – for anyone who gets a kick out of challenging the status quo, shaking up the system – these are propitious times. Now is the time.
Adapted and edited with the permission of David Bornstein: How to Change the World – Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Oxford
University Press, 2004), a book about the people who, in their capacity as social entrepreneurs, are changing the global society. See also: www.howtochangetheworld.org.