The Limits of Social Entrepreneurship

The Limits of Social Entrepreneurship
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Seasoned social entrepreneurs concede the limitations of their social ventures. A chain of charter schools is not national education reform. An enterprise providing affordable bottled water to slum dwellers is not a city-wide system with safe, clean water pouring from every tap. A sustainable microfinance program is not a well-regulated banking system prohibited, by law, from discriminating against women or redlining minority neighborhoods. A community program to improve race relations is not a local ordinance banning police profiling.

The moral and pragmatic imperative is for social entrepreneurs to step up and step into the debate on the future of government. For social entrepreneurs, and for the causes you and I care about, government is not some vague, take-it-for-granted abstraction.

My government’s helping hands are everywhere. My government provides libraries, public parks and street lighting. My government investigates the safety of products, drugs and airplanes. My government pays for the National Weather Service, the Peace Corps and the National Park Service (no, it’s not a valet service). My government is the rule of law. My government funds universities, collects the garbage, conducts medical research, provides worker disability insurance, teaches kids to read and requires my mattress to be nonflammable. My government guards my freedom to gather and protest.

A poem chiseled into a cement wall at the Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown San Francisco asks, “Dare We Dream in Concrete?” Yes, we do. Over the years, the American government, thanks to its citizen-taxpayers, has built 45,000 miles of concrete freeways, at a cost of $185 billion. Today, the interstate highway system remains the largest public works project in human history, generating approximately $800 billion of private economic gain.

Some of the best parts of government are invisible.

Unless a bridge collapses, bridge maintenance goes unnoticed. Public park landscape maintenance is mostly hidden from public view. Building inspectors only get their due after a horrific fire.

In the same way that we pay for health insurance, but don’t want to get sick—some parts of government are a grudge purchase. I pay the government to keep the fire department on alert, but I’m not planning to set my house on fire. I pay into social security, but I would really prefer not to think about growing any older. I pay my fair share of taxes for a strong military, but generally oppose using it.

A significant part of civic entrepreneurship is fighting to assure that civilization’s highest and most sacred ideals are available to everyone without regard to race, color, religion, gender or national origin. The belief structure that we proselytize is venerated, immutable, enshrined and old-fashioned: free speech, participatory democracy, community empowerment, human rights, earth stewardship, sanctity of life (defined as you choose), individual dignity, economic opportunity, family, privacy and peace.

The social entrepreneur’s relationship to the government goes much deeper than a cluster of itemized services. It’s more personal. More intimate. More soulful. Government is our collective moral voice.

In our name, government hugs little children fleeing danger, or sends them back to the mean streets of Central America. In our name, the government keeps watch until needed during the next natural disaster. In our name, government welcomes refugees, or abandons them to the terrors of war and genocide. In our name, the government stands up for Native American tribes protecting their sacred lands, or bows to the oil and gas titans who despoil our air and water. More than anything else we can name, that’s why civic entrepreneurship is worthy of us.

The American heart, we are told, is a generous one. However, individual generosity is not the same as community solidarity.

Look no further than America’s healthcare system. Americans donate to healthcare clinics, hospitals, migrant care, senior citizen centers, medical research, programs for people with disabilities, and so on. Profitable hospitals, health insurers, medical groups and pharmaceutical companies deliver excellent health care -- if you can afford it. Nonetheless, without a governmental guarantee of health care access for all, America bleeds health injustice.

John Kenneth Galbraith, economist and author of American Capitalism, famously destroyed the ambiguous public-versus-private-sector divide. He noted that our quality of life depends equally on vacuum cleaners and street cleaners. The worker who manufactures a vacuum cleaner to clean inside a store, and the worker who cleans the sidewalk in front of that store, both produce needed goods and services, both pay taxes, both raise families, both are engines of national prosperity. Both are necessary for clean living.

As social entrepreneurs, you and I seek out the cleanest, neatest, most sustainable solution. Our urgent assignment is to make each institution as compassionate and as effective as possible. To make government, banks, businesses, churches and NGOs function well. In this era of rending social fabric and frayed social trust, it’s a radical idea.


Jonathan C. Lewis, author of The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur (from which this commentary is adapted), is a life-long social justice activist and social entrepreneur. He is the Founder of MCE Social Capital, an innovative social venture that leverages private capital to finance tiny business loans to deeply impoverished people, mostly women, in 33 countries in the developing world. He is also Founder and President of the Opportunity Collaboration, an annual strategic business retreat for 450 senior level anti-poverty leaders from around the globe. In addition, Jonathan is the co-founder of Copia Global, an Amazon-like consumer catalog serving the base of the economic pyramid in Kenya. Jonathan is a Trustee of the Swift Foundation and serves as a General Partner of Dev Equity, a social impact investment fund in Central America. #UnFinSocEnt @SocentClinic (Photos by Pixabay)

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