A new framework to better understand social entrepreneurship

By Devex Editor 14 October 2015

Sally Osberg, CEO of the Skoll Foundation and the co-author of the new book “Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works,” sat down with Devex Impact Associate Editor Adva Saldinger to discuss definitions of entrepreneurship and the need for entrepreneurs to drive innovation.

Social entrepreneurship has been defined in many ways over the years. In their new book, Sally Osberg and Roger Martin seek to further the definition and outline a framework for thinking about the field. Devex spoke with Osberg about the book and the role entrepreneurs play in turning innovations from great ideas into action in the video above. Below is an adapted excerpt from “Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works.”

In considering social entrepreneurship, the concept of equilibrium change looms large in our thinking. An equilibrium is a balanced, stable system. Left alone, a system in equilibrium will persist in its current state, according to its current structure. The system may well be corrupt, or evil, or unfair, but its forces are in balance and will remain so without intentional action to shift it (and sometimes it will remain even in the face of such action). A system of actors can and often will produce a relatively stable equilibrium that is unpleasant and unproductive for some of those actors, typically for the most underprivileged and marginalized. Carnegie’s world, for instance, was in a stable state when it came to access to books; only a transformative shift would afford the majority of people broad access to them. Without such an intervention, things would have continued as they were.

True equilibrium change is a high bar. It is exceedingly difficult to produce a meaningful shift to a new stable state. There are many more successful social service providers and social advocates than there are successful social entrepreneurs. In part, this is why we believe so fervently in investing in, connecting, and celebrating social entrepreneurs. We need many more of them, and they need help to achieve their ambitions.

Equilibrium change takes time. Existing equilibriums are stable for a reason: the forces at work keep the elements in balance. Just as water will find its own level, social forces will find a resting place, equilibrium. Moving from one stable state to a new one, therefore, is rarely a smooth and uncontested process. It is not always clear during the transition that the new state will be achieved.

We have seen a distinct pattern in the way that social entrepreneurs do their work. When we look at cases of successful social entrepreneurship — cases in which true equilibrium change was imagined, enacted and sustained — we can discern a heuristic, a set of actions that seem to guide an enterprise toward success. This model for equilibrium change should not be thought of as a simplistic recipe, but rather, as a framework for thinking about the work of social entrepreneurship as a process.

The stages are:

1. Understanding the world. The paradox of social transformation is that one has to truly understand the system as it is before any serious attempt can be made to change it. Yet those who understand the status quo best are often those most deeply invested in the current system, while those who see the imperative for change most clearly tend to sit outside the system, looking in. Effective social entrepreneurs acknowledge this dynamic and find a way to navigate it.

2. Envisioning a new future. To make a positive difference, every change agent, whether a social entrepreneur or not, needs to set a direction. Successful social entrepreneurs set the bar high, envisioning fundamental equilibrium change for specific, targeted constituents. They envision a stable and sustainable world that exists on a new, substantially healthier plane for that targeted population and, often, for society at large.

3. Building a model for change. To bring a vision to life, social entrepreneurs must apply creativity and resourcefulness to building a model for change — one that is sustainable in that it reduces costs of increases value in a systematic and permanent way that can be quantified and captured. In our view, social entrepreneurs don’t build innumerably different models for change; there are themes and parallels across success stories.

4. Scaling the solution. Scalability is a critical feature of successful social entrepreneurship. Models that require constant reapplication of the same level of investment regardless of scale will commonly fail to produce sustainable equilibrium change. Such an approach may be too expensive to achieve transformational scale, especially when intended beneficiaries are unable to pay for the benefit.

Excerpted and adapted from Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works. Copyright 2015 Roger L. Martin and Sally R. Osberg. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. All rights reserved.

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