This article is from the Summer 2017 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Nonprofit Graduation: Evolving from Risk Management to Risk Leadership.”
In a world filled with persistent and emerging social, economic, and environmental problems, a modern crusader has emerged with the power to save the day—the social entrepreneur. After long being overshadowed by its much more visible and celebrated sibling, the business entrepreneur, social entrepreneurs have taken center stage as a new type of superhero fighting injustice, poverty, and other social evils across the globe.1 The powers and undertakings of social entrepreneurs are communicated and illustrated via powerful stories in research and the media and supported by celebrities, policy-makers, philanthropists, and a growing number of intermediary support and funding agencies.2
The notion of social entrepreneurship has become an arousing and intoxicating subject that has turned the social entrepreneurship discourse into a grand narrative. Not only are social entrepreneurs celebrated as fundamental social change agents, their superhero images are further reinforced by the tendency to repeatedly frame socially entrepreneurial actions and impact in positive terms. As a consequence, as Pascal Dey and Chris Steyaert put it back in 2012, “anyone who raises questions or concerns is immediately looked at suspiciously because social entrepreneurship has, in the dominant perception, already passed the test of critical scrutiny.”3
The Nonprofit Quarterly has previously highlighted the necessity of a more nuanced discussion regarding the “goodness” of social entrepreneurship as it is now framed;4 however, the purpose of this piece is not to discuss the merit of social entrepreneurship as such but rather how it is being imaged and defined as an act primarily of an individual rather than a collective.
The issue we are focusing on here is far from new—Paul Light’s 2006 article “Reshaping Social Entrepreneurship,” for example, delves into the subject—yet a reminder is much needed.5 In seeking to communicate the deeds and value of social entrepreneurship, there is often a strong focus on the individual social entrepreneur. Colorful and gripping depictions present the idea of twenty-first-century supermen and -women solving the complex issues of our time. To be clear, we are not saying individuals don’t matter; on the contrary, individual agency is a key component of any form of entrepreneurship. However, the fictionalized narrative of the social entrepreneur as a lone ranger needs to be disrupted and problematized—hierarchies based on the charisma, contact, and intelligence of one leader are the wrong form for the work of this sector.
The Lone Ranger Story
That framework of the bold individual entrepreneur as the hero of the age is profoundly ineffectual, counter-evolutionary claptrap—and not just in the civil sector, where we are all about collective action for the public good. It is plainly displaced in our time of open systems and networks. In 1987, Robert Reich wrote in the Harvard Business Review:
To the extent that we continue to celebrate the traditional myth of the entrepreneurial hero, we will slow the progress of change and adaptation that is essential to our economic success. If we are to compete effectively in today’s world, we must begin to celebrate collective entrepreneurship, endeavors in which the whole of the effort is greater than the sum of individual contributions. We need to honor our teams more, our aggressive leaders and maverick geniuses less.
The older and still dominant American myth involves two kinds of actors: entrepreneurial heroes and industrial drones—the inspired and the perspired.6
But the “extraordinary individual” mythology is insistent and embedded in the powerful cultural mythology of the United States—and as such, it is an easy draw for attention and capital. As a result, instead of looking to solutions that not only have collectively positive effects but that are also collectively wrought, we have seen a kind of serial sideshow of highly lauded start-ups—each of whose founders gets his or her own fifteen minutes of fame, which generally flames out within years if not months.
The Community Will Narrative
There is another cultural tradition and mythology that is just as longstanding in this country: our dependence on collective action. We are used to seeing this happen in the face of a disaster—a community rushes toward rather than away from danger, somehow dividing responsibilities and coordinating in an almost magical way. Each independent actor is autonomous, but all are looking to get as much done as possible to make things right. That is the other great American story: a community comes together and works away at the same endeavor, making use of the collective intelligence—the diverse perspectives and disciplines, but common interests—of its members. That is, after all, our national birth story, so it is something that we know resonates—but we have allowed that mythology to lie fallow when it comes to the economy.
But there is far more than ideology to recommend the story of the power of a committed group over the power of an individual in today’s complex world. As Reich describes it:
In collective entrepreneurship, individual skills are integrated into a group; this collective capacity to innovate becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. Over time, as group members work through various problems and approaches, they learn about each others’ abilities. They learn how they can help one another perform better, what each can contribute to a particular project, how they can best take advantage of one another’s experience. Each participant is constantly on the lookout for small adjustments that will speed and smooth the evolution of the whole. The net result of many such small-scale adaptations, effected throughout the organization, is to propel the enterprise forward.7
And that may also, in the long run, make it more sustainable over time—multiple anchors of commitment