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.


Michael Edwards said...

Thanks for the supportive comments Paul, with which I agree. One could say the same about some responses to "social enterprise" from civil society activists of course - we all need to follow Gandhi's advice! Do you know of the Seasons Fund for Social Transformation ( raises and distributes money to support organizations who work in this way? It's worth a look.

I will be working with a global network of scholars and activists (including some social entrepreneurs) over the next year or two to flesh out the impact of different approaches to social change in the light of the debate about "Just another Emperor?", so I hope will join us.

All the Best,

Mike Edwards

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

You chose to DREAM. And you chose to DO.

Now is your chance to INSPIRE the world with your story.

Ashoka’s Youth Venture and Changemakers is partnering with Staples to launch our first global competition to recognize young leaders who are finding new ways to create positive change in their communities.

In other words, we want to honor young leaders like you!!

Enter your project in the Staples Youth Social Entrepreneur Competition to showcase your innovation, find supporters, and win prizes.

Tell us your story today at

Now through October 15th.

Winners will be announced November 12th.

Bopreneur said...

Wow, spammed by Ashoka. Not sure how I feel about this.

Anonymous said...

Paul (and Michael)

Just came across this post and the comments. As you know things take some time to get over here to jolly olde england!

Just finished reading "Just Another Emperor" so very much on my mind. Liked the conclusion but thought Edwards missed a chance to score at some open goals. As Edwards is an Englishman, he will know what I mean.

On the other hand, Matthew Bishop's original book called "Philanthrocapitalism", which sparked off this debate is enraging, but I felt better argued. I welcome Edwards initiative he refers to in his comment and would love to learn more. Even thought of bloggong on this on our own social business blog ( ) which I know you read from time to time

regards, rod schwartz

erika bowman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
erika bowman said...

Hi Paul,

As an Ashoka employee, I've enjoyed reading your blog, and was disappointed to see the unrelated comment posted by "Ashoka's Changemakers" a few months ago. Just so you know, our team was alerted of the spam, and has since changed our online outreach strategy.

Thanks for your support of Ashoka and wonderful insights into BOP developments!

With warmth,
Erika Bowman

Unknown said...

Great post as always. But, an aside of sorts: Bjorn Lomborg makes scientists nauseous because he makes incendiary claims that are not peer reviewed. His so-called "consensus" on climate change is really the consensus of 50 economists that he invited to a meeting. And he's a huckster and salesman (not always bad things!) and THAT really gets the goat of a scientist! See for example: