It turns out social entrepreneurs aren't who we thought they were.
I'm a director at Insight Labs, a group that brings together some of the most creative, intelligent people we can find to take on intractable problems. We recently convened a group in partnership with Echoing Green, the New York-based group known for supporting social entrepreneurs who have gone on to found many influential nonprofit groups. With their help, we set out to find "the next social entrepreneurialism," an idea that would activate thousands of new careers for good.
What we found though was that careers aren't the answer.
It's easy to assume that the value of social entrepreneurs is the innovative way they have built careers around doing good—mainly by starting new organizations.
But it turns out that what matters most about these singular individuals is not their career paths, but their callings—that irresistible compulsion to realize a particular form of good in the world, no matter how many ways they're told "no."
Early proponents of the idea of social entrepreneurialism noticed the similarities between the way these folks pursue their dreams and the spirit that animates young companies. As a result, nonprofits and universities launched programs that seek to equip young people with similar skills.
But without a persistent desire to do good, a social entrepreneur is little more than a glorified grant writer. There are plenty of people with strong callings who will never found a nonprofit, but instead realize their desire to do good in some other arena.
We need to maximize the number of individuals actively pursuing their callings to do good, no matter what form their careers might take.
Proponents of social entrepreneurship should re-calibrate their resources to meet this principle. That may mean connecting with people when they are searching for meaning in life rather than when they are planning their next career move. As one member of this Lab put it, they may need to find them not when they're looking for a job, but when they're looking for a church.
This may sound impossible, but we see three ways in which we think it can be done:
1. Retrace your steps: Organizations like Echoing Green have a leg-up—they've already identified thousands of individuals who made decisions to re-structure their lives around their callings by starting new organizations. They should further study these stories not to give people better advice on how to found nonprofits, but what kinds of experiences prompt people to follow their consciences no matter what the cost.
2. Innovation in the heart: Universities face a different challenge. In the liberal arts curriculum, they already have the tools to jump-start students' inner conversations about right and wrong. But colleges currently do a poor job of connecting those conversations with the decisions students are making about their future. The gap suggests the need for a radically different kind of entrepreneurship program focused on developing what is in students' hearts rather than their heads. If they also need an MBA to pull off that work, so be it—but assuming it does any good without that inner motivation is a fallacy.
3. Call and response: Education and professional development can be important tools for turning one's calling into action. But they are rarely sufficient to discover it in the first place. As participants in this Lab observed, we often realize what matters most to us when we try to share it with other people. Organizations that depend on the successful development of such callings should seek to create settings where people can recognize and sustain them together.
We admit that finding the right societal location for such groups may be a challenge; they fall just short of belonging in places of work or places of worship. But we're convinced that the demand for them would be great.
Through their own lives, social entrepreneurs have made themselves experts in identifying their own callings and making them into realities. But there are no experts in doing good—indeed, everyone ought to have a shot at finding their calling, even if some paths wind up being more conventional than others.
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