Guest Articles

December 14

James Militzer

Social Business Gets Trumped: Is it Time for the Sector to Get Political?


Like most of us, Jonathan Lewis has strong opinions about the election of Donald Trump: “Millions of Americans disregarded his misogyny, his racism, his bigotry, the fact that he’s essentially unqualified for the job, uneducated in big and small ways, a liar, and surrounded by ethics challenges of his own making,” he says at the start of an extremely frank podcast interview (above).

As a serial social entrepreneur and passionate advocate for the sector, Lewis also has strong opinions about what Trump’s election means for the movement he’s dedicated his life to. “All of us who work every day in the field of social entrepreneurship, for a very long time, have been smug and remiss in not paying closer attention to government policy,” he says. Because social enterprise is rooted in the world of business, he believes that too many in the sector have either seen government as the enemy, or just ignored it. And he feels that Trump’s election demonstrates that this approach will no longer suffice.

“The simple fact of the matter is: Government is scale,” he says. “It reaches everybody – in a clumsy and awkward way sometimes, but public policy is the way we unify ourselves as a community, whether it’s at the neighborhood level or at the international, global level.” With that in mind, he says, any progress made by even highly successful social businesses can be wiped out on the whim of a president with conflicting priorities. “You pick an issue, and a stroke of a pen … at the White House can be enormously damaging – and I think will be. So I think social entrepreneurs have to do some soul searching about what the levers of power are in our society – and it’s not only just the marketplace.”
But what can social entrepreneurs do as individuals or as a community, if the broader population elects leaders who don’t share the sector’s goals? “I don’t come to this conversation with answers,” Lewis says. “But I can tell you this: The answer does not start with a self-imposed barrier between those who operate in the social entrepreneurship world and what’s going on in the circles of government. You can go endlessly to social entrepreneur conferences, and rarely is government invited, rarely is government on the program. … So it’s a Rubicon question for us: If we are on the side of justice, if we are on the side of the communities we say we serve, if we’re on the side of the consumers at the base of the pyramid – if that’s our agenda, then we have to look at all the ways we can affect and improve communities and people’s lives.
“I think the Trump election should be a wake-up call to us. … Our role as social entrepreneurs is not just creating sustainable businesses that serve communities in an environmentally and ethically responsible way. It is also figuring out how we can be the laboratory for more progressive, thoughtful and community-minded policy. Social entrepreneurs are citizens too.”
But does that mean aspiring social entrepreneurs should just get into politics instead? Is there a danger that by openly embracing its progressive roots, the sector could alienate roughly half of the population, preventing it from moving further into the mainstream? And might there be a case for some degree of optimism after the election, due to the likelihood that a Trump administration might bring business-friendly tax and regulatory policies that could benefit social business as well? Or could Trump’s appeal to blue-collar, lower-income people even potentially signal a shift in his party toward the interests of some of the communities that social business focuses on?
We discuss these questions and more in the interview above. Check it out, and share your views in the comments section below.
James Militzer is the senior editor of NextBillion.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr
Social Enterprise
public policy