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How To Change The World: Social Entrepreneurs

David Bornstein, author of How To Change The World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas is a journalist who specializes in writing about social innovation. In his book, Bornstein profiles some of the incredible individuals who have successfully changed the world by blurring the line between business and social action. In the excerpt below Bornstein looks at why studying social entrepreneurship is so critical.

Over the past century, researchers have studied business entrepreneurs extensively. They have analyzed their orientation to action, to risk, and to growth; they have explored the entrepreneur’s “personal value orientation” and “internal locus of control” and searched for clues to explain the entrepreneur’s propensity to seek out and exploit change. Not only have business entrepreneurs been thoroughly studied, but their talents have been nurtured by value systems, government policies, and a wide array of institutional supports.

In contrast, social entrepreneurs have received little attention. Historically, they have been cast as humanitarians or saints, and stories of their work have been passed down more in the form of children’s tales than case studies. While the stories may inspire, they fail to make social entrepreneurs’ methods comprehensible. One can analyze an entrepreneur, but how does one analyze a saint?

9780195334760.jpgThe study of social entrepreneurs has not been neglected for lack of examples. In the United States, an abbreviated list of well-known innovators might include: William Lloyd Garrison (abolition), Gifford Pinchot (environmental conservation and management), Horace Mann (public education reform), Susan B. Anthony (women’s voting rights), Jane Addams (social welfare and juvenile justice), Asa Philip Randolph (labor rights for African Americans), and Ralph Nader (consumer protection). However, while much has been written about the various movements these people helped to build, their methods have not received the rigorous, cross-industry scrutiny that is common to the study of business entrepreneurs.

The difference in the treatment of business and social entrepreneurs seems to reflect different attitudes about the role of individuals in the business and social arenas. In the business sector, individuals have long been recognized as engines of change. It was only a few decades after Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, which set down the basic tenets of market-based economics, that Jean- Baptiste Say identified the special role of entrepreneurs.

By contrast, theories of social change have concentrated more on how ideas move people than on how people move ideas. Émile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, was concerned with the process by which “social facts”—institutions, customs, collective sentiments—act on individuals to shape behavior. Sociologists identify many forces in social change—demographics, technology, economics, social movements, political processes—but with the exception of Max Weber’s treatment of the “charismatic leader,” they spend little time discussing the role of individuals.

In social change theory, ideas take center stage and people remain in the audience. The thinking is captured succinctly in Victor Hugo’s famous adage: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

The problem with this statement is that it gives too much to ideas. It fails to account for the fact that ideas compete for attention and legitimacy and the ones that gain ascendance do not win the day on their merits alone.

Ideas whose times have come are all around us. Given the widely shared concern about global warming, for example, one might imagine that “environmentalism” is an idea whose time has come. Today in the United States, it often seems to be an idea whose time has come and gone, to judge from the fact that millions of people drive sport utility vehicles (SUVs) that are highly polluting and less fuel efficient (not to mention more dangerous for both their own passengers as well as those in other vehicles) than the cars that were on the market thirty years ago.

The idea that the world’s children are entitled to basic health protection was accepted in principle decades ago. However, it took an individual named James Grant, whose story is detailed later, to make child survival an idea whose time had come.

An idea is like a play. It needs a good producer and a good promoter even if it is a masterpiece. Otherwise the play may never open; or it may open but, for lack of an audience, close after a week. Similarly, an idea will not move from the fringes to the mainstream simply because it is good; it must be skillfully marketed before it will actually shift people’s perceptions and behavior.

This is especially true if the idea threatens the powerful or runs counter to established norms or beliefs. In his book, Leading Change: The Argument for Values-Based Leadership, James O’Toole, an expert in management and leadership, observes that great thinkers throughout the ages agree that “groups resist change with all the vigor of antibodies attacking an intruding virus.” O’Toole examines a number of cases in which a potentially beneficial institutional change was resisted and finds that the resistance occurs when a group perceives that a change in question will challenge its “power, prestige, position, and satisfaction with who they are, what they believe, and what they cherish.” He asserts: “The major factor in our resistance to change is the desire not to have the will of others forced on us.”

If ideas are to take root and spread, therefore, they need champions—obsessive people who have the skill, motivation, energy, and bullheadedness to do whatever is necessary to move them forward: to persuade, inspire, seduce, cajole, enlighten, touch hearts, alleviate fears, shift perceptions, articulate meanings and artfully maneuver them through systems.

While researching this book, I looked at a variety of changes that had occurred in different fields and found a pattern. Frequently, when I traced the change back to its source, I found an obsessive individual working behind the scenes—a person with vision, drive, integrity of purpose, great persuasive powers, and remarkable stamina.

The origin of the modern postal system is a classic example.

The system was introduced in England in 1840 by Rowland Hill, a then-unknown British schoolmaster and inventor whose ideas initially met with hostile opposition and ridicule.7 Hill had noticed that postal revenues in England failed to increase between 1815 and 1835 although the country’s economy had grown considerably. Searching for an explanation, he spent five years on his own time studying the cost structure of mail delivery.

At the time, the average price to mail a letter in England was 12 cents, which put the service out of reach for most of the population. The price was a function of handling costs. Because postal clerks priced letters according to their weight, enclosures, origin, and destination, each letter had to be studied individually: Clerks would hold letters up to lamplight to count the number of enclosures before consulting price tables and recording each transaction in a log. Additionally, letters were paid for at the time of receipt; if the intended recipients rejected them, no money was collected.

Through his analysis, Hill demonstrated that the costs for conveyance of mail were actually minor in comparison with handling and administrative costs. He began thinking about ways to simplify the system and came up with the idea of charging a uniform price for all mail in Great Britain (initially a penny for a half ounce) and a prepayment system: an adhesive postage stamp.

Hill’s proposal met with virulent opposition from the postal bureaucracy. Senior postal officials condemned it as “preposterous” and a “wild and visionary scheme.” But his call for a “Penny Post” struck a populist chord and eventually won the endorsement of leading newspapers, which stood to benefit from reduced postal fees. After a protracted political battle, the government authorized Hill to implement his system.

Hill then embarked on a two-decade battle within the postal authority to reorganize the collection and delivery of mail so that the service could handle a dramatic increase in volume and justify the trust that prepayment implies. It took several years for the system’s merits to be demonstrated. However, by 1843 the idea had already spread to Switzerland and Brazil. From 1838 to 1863 annual mail delivery in England rose from 76 million to 642 million letters. To cite one example of the impact of the Penny Post on commerce, in 1839 the annual amount transmitted via money orders in England was £313,000. By 1863 the amount was £16.5 million, more than a 5,000 percent increase. Among those for whom Hill’s system was a godsend was Florence Nightingale, author of 12,000 letters.

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