What in the World Is a Social Entrepreneur?

Last week I took a few days of leave from my job to join a group gathered with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation to problem solve on how to bring marginalized people into mainstream lives of value to them and their communities - including those with physical disabilities, mental retardation, mental illness, immigrants, migrant workers, the elderly and the extremely poor. The conference group was a small international collection, from India, South Africa, Poland, Mexico, Australia, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA. But what defined the group was that they were principally social entrepreneurs. What is a social entrepreneur?

In Australia that means going into the bush country to remote aboriginal towns where housing is decrepit and spawns disease and then repairing poorly built homes with indigenous people trained to fix drains and electrical outlets or whatever so that waste is properly disposed, sanitation restored, and power made available; in Australia it also means providing housing for the elderly who are homeless who had been excluded from the elderly service system. In Poland it means creating cooperatives from people damaged by life's horrors and misfortunes and training them in trades and other needed local services so they build homes, some of which they will inhabit. In India it means converting rural extremely poor villagers' huts to homes that have sanitation and water and can withstand the rains, in hundreds of villages. In South Africa it means building on church and community commitments for the most vulnerable members of society, such as those with HIV/AIDS, women and children subject to human trafficking and those living in shanty towns, to provide housing, health care, education and training so they can become contributing members of the community. In Canada it means enabling people with disabilities to save money and develop social networks so that they can successfully survive the death of their parents. In the USA it means the remarkable supported housing movement that has spread throughout the country because it has shown that those individuals on the streets and in shelters can be successfully housed for far less money than taxpayers would expend for the emergency medical and welfare services they would need had they remained homeless.

Is the term "social entrepreneur" an oxymoron? How can someone be entrepreneurial about social services? Aren't social services what the poor and the sick are due, and the duty of government to fulfill? Aren't these services performed by professionals trained in caring for others, like social workers and psychologists? Isn't this about taking care of people who are destitute, debilitated or deranged? What is an entrepreneur doing in the world of social services?

Perhaps the beginning of an answer to this last question is that marginalized individuals want what we all want: a home, a job and a community of people (not paid professionals) who care that we are alive. The "business" of a social entrepreneur is not caring for the sick - it is enabling a person to have a life of contribution in the community. Dependency is inherent to the sick role and capability is inherent to the role of contributing member of the community. The work of an entrepreneur is about capability, not caretaking, and thus a very different approach to illness or victimization. It is about seeing the client as a resource, not a liability. The answer may be a bit more revealed by what skills an entrepreneur brings to the problem because she or he is asking how can I do this: Better? Cheaper? Faster? How can I, the social entrepreneur asks, use human capital, the resources inherent to individuals and their communities, to problem solve and deliver, without profit, universal needs of housing, jobs and community, instead of pursuing greater largesse from governments that are running out of money (like in the west); or are bankrupt or corrupt, or cannot sufficiently reach the itinerant, rural areas, or the extremely poor (like in the global south or eastern Europe); or are emerging as stable, renewed nations (such as post-Communist states).

With social entrepreneurship we are witnessing the tide shift away from social services to social development organizations that build capacity in individuals and communities to leverage all the capital that needs to be brought to bear on problems that go deep and wide. There are a growing number of social entrepreneurs, and we surely need them; organizations like Ashoka and Skoll are finding and helping to spread their solutions. Social development organizations reflect a move away from paternalism and towards responsible citizenry and responsible government (each believing in the other and having conviction that complex problems can be solved), that 'clients' have an ownership stake in the outcomes they desire, and that the spirit of entrepreneurship can live in the social sector - in fact, that the social sector may need it to survive.

Social entrepreneurs offer us an alternate vision of Tom Wolfe's "masters of the universe" (Bonfire of the Vanities) - where financial titans are eager to take and take and leave nothing of value. An entrepreneur need not make a fortune for personal benefit. The work of social entrepreneurs challenges us to ask ourselves 'how do we measure value'? Is it in the taking or the doing? In private wealth or habitable homes and communities? Social entrepreneurs show us that enabling others to lead lives of belonging and contribution is a truer measure of value, one that is priceless.

The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. Lloyd I Sederer, MD

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