Sunday, August 10, 2008

Be the change...

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." One of Gandhi's most famous quotes, and one that ends up on t-shirts and bumperstickers. Perhaps some of the better known (and funded) social entrepreneurs would do well to keep this in mind. They don't seem to react very well when the prevailing wisdom of the field is questionned or criticized, based on at least three responses I've noticed in recent months.

1) Earlier this year, in "Just Another Emperor" Michael Edwards (of Ford Foundation) questioned whether "philanthrocapitalism" was the best solution to poverty and international development. The debate has ranged from escalating hostility (See Jim Fruchterman's recent posts and Edward's responses on the Benetech blog) to polite disagreement (WRI bloggers at NextBillion). Reminds me a bit of the response to the "Death of Environmentalism" a few years back, or how Bjorn Lomborg is treated as an environmental pariah for questioning whether climate change is the biggest challenge the world faces.

2) Recent studies have questionned the impact of "social marketing" and instead advocated a return to free distribution of bednets, medicines, etc. This also provoked a less than considered response by some social entrepreneurs. Apparently the approach of using validated research methods, such as the projects of the MIT Poverty Action Lab, is threatening to some in the social sector.

3) Professor Paul Light questioned whether social entrepreneurship should be defined more inclusively in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article last year. Bill Drayton of Ashoka and Sally Osberg of Skoll Foundation both asserted, based on anecdotal evidence, that it was dangerous to let too many people claim to be social entrepreneurs. John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan sound a similar theme in their book "The Power of Unreasonable People." Look for Paul to reengage on this topic in his upcoming book "The Search for Social Entrepreneurship."

I have personal anecdotes of less than civil behavior in the civil sector. I am a big believer in the power of entrepreneurship as one tool to tackle social and environmental challenges. But I am also a big believer in letting markets, including markets of ideas, operate freely. My concern is that momentum and talent are lost to the field when new ideas from new people are met with personal attacks and this sort of defensiveness. The needed innovations will come through hard work in the field, not the labeling and sorting of who is, and who isn't, a true social entrepreneur by those who apparently know the secret handshake.

A more interesting, but still spirited, debate on a closely related topic can be found at Creative Capitalism.

It would seem to me that of all fields, social entrepreneurship should be the one modeling how to engage in civil conversation and debate. There is lots of room for passionate diagreement, and I am, after all the one that posted the "no rules in a knife fight" clip. But I gotta say I am not too enthusiastic about the change these leading social entrepreneurs will bring about if this is the way they behave when confronted with criticism or new ideas. We need to respect the early leaders in this field, but not be dogmatic in applying their approaches to the many challenges we face. Hero worshippers rarely become heroes.

PG has done it again

On a completely different note, Paul Graham has once again hit the nail squarely with a great essay on Fundraising for start-ups. Great advice, and as is often the case, applicable beyond his IT domain.

Campaign for a Sustainable Planet

The Nature Conservancy has set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal with this new campaign: "protect at least 10% of each of the world's major habitat types-forests and grasslands, oceans, rivers and lakes and deserts and aridlands- by 2015." Sounds like a good way for the new CEO Mark Tercek (from Goldman Sachs) to rally the troops.

One Acre Fund

Kudos also to this organization, which continues to quietly make progress. When I first met Andrew, he struck me as a humble, smart, persistent guy. He talked about proving the model before scaling up. Click here to read their most recent report. Here is an excerpt: "One Acre Fund farmers increase their raw harvests by 3-4x on average, resulting in at least a doubling of their farm income. They not only feed their own families, they create surplus food for their communities. Our farmers, instead of relying on handouts, operate like business people, and earn their harvests for themselves." They are now going to scale up the organization and I wish them the best in their efforts to have 30,000 African farmers as customers in the next few years. Andrew and crew are being the change I'd like to see!

Disclosure: I donate to Ashoka, One Acre Fund and The Nature Conservancy and think they do great work. I am also a fan of Benetech and Jim F's pioneering work there.

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