Social Entrepreneurship and Self-Discovery

Casting about on the interwebs on an entirely different task the other day, I came across this thought-provoking post by Lara Galinsky of Echoing Green on social entrepreneurship. Given the immense popularity of social entrepreneurship and Echoing Green’s role in promoting it, I was intrigued that Galinsky took on the task of examining its shadow side.

A leading incubator of social entrepreneurs, Echoing Green describes them as “exceptional individuals who dream up and take responsibility for an innovative and untested idea for positive social change, and usher that idea from dream to reality.” Galinsky acknowledges the drawbacks of the star maker role Echoing Green has played in focusing on individuals and the erroneous perception that social entrepreneurs can change the world by themselves, without help from “artists, volunteers, development directors, communications specialists, donors, and advocates.”

That is a welcome clarification, especially given the media’s relentless attention on Hollywood stars and business moguls who want to do good in the world. Real social change doesn’t happen thanks to one person’s effort, no matter how worthy the idea or how big the financial investment, and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Galinsky describes Echoing Green’s evolution away from the exclusive focus on social entrepreneur fellows to support for the “entire ecosystem it takes to solve the world’s biggest problems.” She recommends that young people think not about starting their own organizations but ask themselves what problems they want to solve.

Again, more to applaud. It’s important to recognize all the people and resources that go into making a new idea come to fruition. It’s also wise to recognize that the risk of empire-building in non-profit work is high, and that joining forces with existing groups can be much more efficient and effective than starting a new one. We formed Amazon Partnerships Foundation only after we had explored partnerships with other groups and determined that our approach was different enough to warrant creating a separate entity. Yet we were always clear that our purpose was to work toward our mission, not simply to maintain an organization for its own sake.

As cogent as Galinsky’s recommendations are, I’m not sure they get to the heart of the issue that seems to be embedded in the concept of social entrepreneurship: its focus on the “problem-solver.” Of course there is untold suffering in the world, and finding a way to alleviate it would make for a much happier, healthier planet for all beings that inhabit it. But I think we need to challenge our particularly American view that there are “problems out there” and as individual leaders we can “solve” them. My nearly ten years of experience in international development, after which I’m still more of a novice than an expert, has taught me otherwise. The role of someone who wants to make change should be not to look for problems but to understand complexity, to listen carefully, to question, to take risks, and to recognize that he or she is always part of a larger context.

By no means am I arguing that a person shouldn’t exercise leadership or make independent decisions, nor that young people (or older people) shouldn’t consider what is important to them when they are embarking on a new career. I believe it’s essential for people to feel a sense of contribution in their work, and I embrace the individualism and creativity that shape American culture; I’m a product of those values.

But we have to appreciate the connection between self-discovery and the environment in which we find ourselves. The process of figuring out how to make a contribution to others is not first and foremost about our individual passions; it is about attempting to understand what the world needs and why. That requires disengaging our egos, being still, and observing for a while. Approached this way, social entrepreneurship would become less about star-making and more about change-making, drawing from the collective talents of all people involved in the process.

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