Real Change Requires Politics

Friday, July 15, 2011

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – Every now and then, a new career path seizes the imagination of the global elite. Today it is social enterprise, in which earnest, problem-solving elites devote themselves to social causes, using the ethos and methods of business.

In the 2000s, investment banking and consulting had a near-duopoly on the top I.Q.’s. We saw how that went. Now those I.Q.’s are gravitating to challenges like growing mushrooms in discarded coffee grounds, allowing strangers to lend each other money online and keeping babies warm with heatable wax.

The phenomenon is starkest in M.B.A. programs. The proportion of M.B.A.’s among the applicants to Teach for America, for example, tripled between 2007 and 2010, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. At Harvard Business School, the Social Enterprise Club has become one of the largest student organizations, with more than 400 members. B-schools are adding electives in education and sustainability to keep up with their students.

Social entrepreneurs import the business world’s obsession with results. They use spreadsheets and PowerPoint to attack poverty and disease. They follow the 80-20 rule, focusing on small interventions with large consequences.

These organizations fulfill bright people because their missions reflect the average human being’s complex blend of altruism and selfishness. We want to save the world, profit from it and feel smart, all at once.

“This new generation wants to work on today’s toughest problems in part to do good and, just as important, because those issues present some of the most intellectually challenging issues we face as a world,” said Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture fund that invests in social entrepreneurs.

The logic of both-and – as opposed to either-or – is prevalent in this field. Social entrepreneurs tend to believe that problems can be solved to the benefit of all. In their ideal world, money makers make their money, the poor are rescued from poverty, elites find meaning, and governments are circumvented.

In its early days, social enterprise was well-served by earnestness, which kept problem-solvers focused on the possible in a world full of impossibilities. But now, having gained influence, it may be time that the field reconsiders.

What earnest social enterprise can sometimes ignore is power, predation and good old-fashioned politics.

Source: The New York Times (link opens in a new window)