Social Enterprise and Policy

In April, David Brooks wrote an op-ed about the idealism of social entrepreneurs, and his perception that they ignore policy. There were several excellent responses to the piece by Echoing Green and others, but this one in particular by J. Gregory Dees, a professor in the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, is my favorite. Beyond pointing out, as others also did, the number of social enterprises focused on tackling corruption, encouraging democratic participation, and working with policy and government directly, I like the piece because Dees really speaks to why I believe so much in the social enterprise framework after working in the policy world.

One of the greatest aspects of social enterprise is that it shows a proof of concept for new business models and how problems can be approached from different angles. Dees calls social enterprise society’s “learning laboratory,” showing how change can happen so that policy and business can later (hopefully) catch on and do the same, without as much risk or lack of proof. In addition, the social enterprise framework encourages a systemic mindset that understands the major role government and policy, and all sectors, must play in real change. 

Dees’ final point is especially true for how I feel about politics today. I’m not interested in partisan battles or ideology. I’m interested in solving problems systemically and collaboratively, regardless of political party. In DC, I didn’t find much space for me to be non-partisan because there is this desire to put people in a box with one party or the other. One of the reasons I am drawn to social enterprise is because I can work with others who want action and change more than they want to follow ideology and win elections. This is not to say that there aren’t many people in DC working across party lines, tackling big issues, and creating real change. I have dear friends in DC doing honorable work. But they seem to be the exception, working against inflexible institutions and culture, and their initiatives never get the media spotlight they deserve. 

Although I left the policy world for now, working with social enterprise in India, I still see the importance of government, policy, and political participation, even more so than I did while working in DC. I hope that social entrepreneurs will work even more closely with the policy world moving forward, and that government and policymakers will incorporate more of the social enterprise framework into how they work.

Excerpt from Dees’ article: 

“Social entrepreneurs do not discourage political participation – they invent new mechanisms for achieving the public good. Quite often solutions to problems require not just mobilizing political support but actually demonstrating how to solve problems that have confounded others. It doesn’t matter how much pressure you put on the government to fix a problem if the existing agencies don’t actually know how to fix it. In this regard, social entrepreneurship is an essential complement to the political process – not just where there is disorder, but even in well-governed societies. Everyone knows we need innovation in this time of strained government budgets. How else do we achieve better results with fewer resources? Social entrepreneurs serve as society’s “learning laboratory,” developing, testing, and refining new approaches to problems in ways that government agencies, with all their budgetary, bureaucratic, legislative, jurisdictional, and political constraints cannot do. These innovators represent the kind of decentralized problem solving that Nobel Lauriat Douglass North identifies as essential for any society to achieve what he calls “adaptive efficiency,” the ability to adjust and thrive in the face of new challenges and shifting problems.  Now, more than ever, we need innovative, adaptive societies.

Think of the kinds of social problems we face today: how to get health care to the poor (and everyone else more efficiently), how to get clean water or energy to those with limited access, how to get quality education to at risk youth, how to protect children from abuse and bullying, how to get companies to reduce their environmental footprints. To solve them, we need to revitalize institutions across society – governments, businesses and nonprofits. This requires entrepreneurship. Today’s social entrepreneurs learn quickly how difficult it is to do this work well. As a result, they learn humility. They learn to think pragmatically and systemically. They balance the need to work outside governments to enjoy greater flexibility – and to work with government to achieve structural changes. They come to understand the competitive advantages and natural limitations of people working in different sectors.

We should celebrate that so many young people are drawn to social entrepreneurship, not bemoan this trend. They will be smarter about their political choices as a result. It may not swell the ranks of the campus Democrat and Republican clubs in the short term, but it will lead to greater and more thoughtful political engagement in the longer term.

Finally, one thing that social entrepreneurs tend not to be is staunchly ideological. People who are obsessed with solving problems at a significant scale learn quickly that success means making trade offs and compromises – advancing good-enough solutions that can spread and take root politically rather than idealized ones that appeal to the pure of heart. That’s why they tend not to be attracted to the kind of partisan bickering that fills the airwaves and the halls of Washington, D.C. Growing interest in social entrepreneurship is not causing the political malaise in this country; rather it is a reaction to it. In fact, if there is a cure to this malaise, it may come from a generation of people who are more interested in solving problems than winning arguments, who want to build politically inclusive structures, rather than out maneuver or deride their opponents. Today’s youth may seem to approach their social improvement work in a more upbeat, collegial, and optimistic way than the noir heroes (like Sam Spade) that Brooks celebrates in his critique, but that does not mean they lack seriousness, critical eyes or hard-boiled realism. Don’t underestimate them.”

Social Enterprise and Policy

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