Social entrepreneurs are people who want to bring about non-routine projects, collaborations, or organizations where they didn’t previously exist in order to solve a perceived social problem. This is very different from working within an existing organization and using its official resources to bring about a particular result. An example might be a community activist who conceives of a storefront operation providing financial advice to local homeowners facing foreclosure. In order to bring this about, he or she needs to secure financial commitments from some potential partners, recruit expert volunteers from others, and gain cooperation from community neighbors to trust and use the service. And, finally, the project needs to deliver a reasonable percentage of its promised benefits — some number of troubled mortgage holders need to be successful in retaining their homes thanks to the service.
There are examples of highly successful social entrepreneurs everywhere — think of Geoffrey Canada and the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone (link), Matt and Jessica Flannery and the creation of Kiva, a successful peer-to-peer micro-lending program (link), Father William Cunningham and Eleanor Josaitis and the founding of FocusHope in Detroit (link), or Millard and Linda Fuller, founders of Habitat for Humanity (link). And we don’t have to turn to the high-profile cases to find great examples of skillful social entrepreneurship — every city is home to community leaders and innovators who have created coalitions or organizations that have significantly contributed to solutions for important social problems.
It is interesting to notice that the idea of social entrepreneurship brings in the social in two different ways. Social entrepreneurs are involved in addressing social problems; so the object of the entrepreneurial activity is to enhance some aspect of the public good or to solve a social problem, rather than achieving a private “return on investment”. But second, social entrepreneurship depends on putting together voluntary coalitions among a number of independent social actors in a sustained common effort. A purely private and self-financed effort to provide meals for homeless teenagers would be a laudable effort; but I’m not sure I would call it “social entrepreneurship.” It doesn’t confront the key problem of locating potential partners, engaging them in the project, and sustaining the collaboration over the long term. So a social entrepreneur involves social cooperation at the input side and public goods on the output side.
The question here is a simple one: what are some of the factors that permit some people to be successful in efforts at social entrepreneurship and others strikingly not? There are also other groups of people — those who would never consider the idea of creating a new social project in any circumstances and those who look at social causes as a moment for personal gain, for example. But just consider the well-intentioned actors who undertake to put together a successful coalition for the public good — what distinguishes between those who succeed and those who fail?
A couple of related concepts in the social sciences are immediately relevant to this question — in particular, the concept of social capital and the idea of a social network. Putting the point very intuitively — success in a project of social entrepreneurship is more likely if the agent has more social relationships of trust and confidence with other influential players to bring to bear in the effort. And likewise, he/she is more likely to succeed in some rough proportion to the depth and weight of the social networks within which the agent is located. (Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community is one place where the idea of social capital is applied to contemporary society.)
Crudely, the individual’s capacity to make things happen is multiplied by the strength of the organizations he/she can call upon in support of the effort. This point segues to the point about social networks: if the agent is in a position to call upon the support and collaboration of other resource holders as a result of personal and professional relationships, then he/she is more likely to succeed in putting into place the elements needed for establishment of the project.
Let’s apply these points to our community activist. Suppose this individual has developed strong relationships with regional foundations, businesses, semi-governmental organizations, and elected officials. And suppose that these relationships have resulted in a deep reservoir of trust in the activist’s perseverance and integrity. Finally, suppose the agent has a well-developed plan for establishing and maintaining the center with high credibility of success. He/she has a good “business plan” for the social project.
It is believable that this actor is much more likely to succeed than his twin with very weak personal and organizational relationships. Our organizer will have a good chance of persuading these potential partners to make the financial commitments and commitments of engagement needed to put the financial counseling center in place. And if the center is successful over several years, it is also likely that the agent’s fund of trust and confidence will deepen — making the next project even more achievable.
This part of the story concerns the social location of the actor — the networks and organizations the agent can turn to in seeking support for the project. What are the features of personality and character that support and deepen these elements of social capital?
Here are several. Trust and credibility are essential. This is true because the success of the enterprise requires the continuing cooperation of voluntary partners. The agent needs to inspire trust in the partners. And inspiring trust isn’t just a fact about current behavior or a persuasive smile — the agent needs to have a track record of behavior that validates that trust as well.
Second, credible competence is crucial as well. The agent needs to be able to make the case that the project can succeed and that he/she has the skills needed to carry it out. This too depends heavily on one’s history — the best evidence of future competence is demonstrated past competence.
This also implies a third characteristic — a need to be able to communicate clearly and credibly. Simply being a good communicator isn’t enough, but failing to communicate well certainly weakens the likelihood of success in bringing together a durable partnership.
And we can’t overlook the characteristics of originality and imagination. Solving difficult social problems requires new ideas and innovative approaches. So the successful social entrepreneur probably needs to have a focused imagination that permits him/her to conceive of new potential solutions — or at least recognize them when other people invent them.
One wonders, finally, if there is a dimension of empathy and emotional intelligence that plays an important differentiating role among different social actors in this kind of activity. How important is it for the social entrepreneur to be able to understand and express the human importance of the issue? And how important are these skills in sustaining coalitions once they have begun? It seems believable that this is very important indeed.
It appears that social entrepreneurship is ready for some serious academic study, along the lines of studies of private entrepreneurship over the past several decades. Here is a report of a preliminary study of Ashoka fellows in social entrepreneurship (link). And the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford Graduate School of Business offers some interesting examples as well (link).