Nidhi Chaudhary

Guest Post: A Healthy Dose of Idealism – How David Brooks Got it Wrong

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Echoing Green Blog.

As many of you have likely read by now, David Brooks published an op-ed in The New York Times last week that features social entrepreneurs. While we were ecstatic when Mr. Brooks revered and highlighted social entrepreneurs and their power as changemakers in March of 2008, this time around, he found them to be too idealistic and out of touch with ground realities.

We have a different point of view.

We’ve been in the business of supporting social entrepreneurs for over two decades, and we have ideas about what it takes for them to succeed and what will surely result in failure.

Yes, many social entrepreneurs don’t have faith in the political process. But that is the point. These entrepreneurs are recognizing that the system is not availing their communities with the solutions they need, so they create them, sometimes from the ground up.

But, social entrepreneurs know they will not succeed if they try to bypass government. Regardless of its efficiency, it is one enormous force that will not go away. But, it’s incorrect to assume that if you aren’t trying to change the system, you still aren’t engaging with bureaucracy, ministries, and civil society on a daily basis.

For example, Elizabeth Scharpf, a 2008 Echoing Green Fellow and founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), is creating a franchise model to help women in Rwanda start their own businesses to produce and sell sustainable menstrual pads. In the process, she is partnering with the Rwandan Ministries of Education and Health to change the public health curriculum in schools. SHE led a grassroots advocacy campaign that galvanized a march across Rwanda’s capital; the government paid attention, eventually approving funds to procure menstrual pads for the poorest girls in the country.

Educate!, founded by 2009 Echoing Green Fellow Eric Glustrom, has just integrated its social entrepreneurship curriculum into the national education system of Uganda, reaching 45,000 young people in 1,000 schools across the country.

Every day, social entrepreneurs deal with institutions, laws, and financial regulations that govern—and sometimes hinder—their work.

Redefining the political process is so much more than just engaging with it. Health, clean water, economic opportunity, and agriculture are all mechanisms by which to address political fallacies and to change policy. From our seed funding Fellowship applicant pool of 3,508 for the 2012 Echoing Green Fellowship, 6 percent are interested in addressing election fraud, access to the political process, reform of judicial systems, etc. In the last five years alone, 28percent of our Fellows are leading organizations to reform civil society issues.

They are challenging the rule of law and order head on. Amy Bach, a 2011 Echoing Green Fellow, is working to create a Justice Index to rank local criminal courts in the United States on their effectiveness in crime reduction and recidivism prevention. Tutu Alicante, a 2007 Echoing Green Fellow, is working directly with citizens to fight government impunity and advocate for lasting democratic reforms in Equatorial Guinea. Karen Tse, a 2002 Echoing Green Fellow, partnered with the Chinese government to craft an agreement to help them implement their human rights legislation. Scott Warren, a 2010 Echoing Green Fellow, is giving middle school students the practical tools and knowledge to take on civic reform in their own communities—because when you learn at an early age that you can create reform, you do.

Yes, social entrepreneurs are idealistic. And, we see that as a good thing—it is the fuel that allows them to push forward, despite the grim realities they confront every day, like being asked to pay bribes to get the lights turned on in your office. Or when your local staff is skimming off the top. Or when your investors are pushing you to make changes to your mission and you have to find the balance between money and purpose.

Here’s the thing, though—they get up and do it all over again. And again. Not many of us have the grit to do that.

We all need a healthy dose of idealism. It’s the idealistic notion of what can be in this world that makes social changers so special. They believe that despite the chaos of law and order, despite the 885 million people who don’t have access to clean water, the 2.6 billion people without a toilet, and the 925 million people who live on less than $1/day (according to the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report and 2008 World Bank Development Indicators) that big, bold change is necessary…and possible.

In 2008, Mr. Brooks noted, “…these social entrepreneurs are almost willfully blind to ideological issues. They will tell you, even before you have a chance to ask, that they are data-driven and accountability-oriented.”

What changed? More than ever, the impact investing, venture capital, and foundation space is forcing social entrepreneurs to deep dive into their impact and be explicitly clear about their business models. That’s what they want, too.

Without it, Pharmasecure would not have secured a nearly four million dollar round in financing, led by ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt at Innovation Endeavors. Embrace would have not received funding from GE to expand distribution in India, and Equal Opportunity Schools would not have the backing of Dell, Pershing Square Foundation, and the Gates Foundation.

We’re proud to support the Sam Spades of the world. These individuals are the ones who see potential of turning scrap metal into inexpensive cars worthy of Africa’s roads; or using corn cobs, leaves, and stalks to create carbon negative charcoal to use as fuel; or to develop a needle test for anemia, without the needle. Why else would Sanergy find a way to take human waste and turn it into fertilizer to grow flowers?

We wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Brooks when he said, “…we might as well take advantage of this explosion of social entrepreneurship. These are some of the smartest and most creative people in the country.”

We all need this army of smart, creative—and even idealistic—social entrepreneurs on the ground to turn their dreams of a better world into a reality.

Education, Social Enterprise
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