Social entrepreneurs band together for a seat at the COVID-19 response table

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Klaus Schwab, co-founder of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, speaks with a group of social entrepreneurs and others. Photo by: Foundations World Economic Forum / CC BY

SAN FRANCISCO — Ahead of the United Nations General Assembly, the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs launched an action agenda outlining ways to support social entrepreneurs during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

“We call on all actors to stand by social entrepreneurs as frontline responders to the COVID-19 crisis and as pioneers of a green, inclusive society and economic system,” read a statement on behalf of the 60 members of the alliance.

As social entrepreneurs respond to the COVID-19 crisis all over the world, efforts to support them leading up to UNGA 75 demonstrate growing recognition of the value they can add in the immediate response and in an inclusive recovery.

Moving from projects to systems change

Earlier this year, leading social entrepreneurs formed Catalyst 2030 as a way to harness the power of collective action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

The coalition, which launched at the World Economic Forum’s 2019 annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, brings together entrepreneurs who have been selected by leading global networks, including Ashoka, Echoing Green, the Skoll Foundation, and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

Since then, Catalyst 2030 has been a leading voice on the role of social entrepreneurs in the COVID-19 response and the SDG agenda.

Many of the social entrepreneurs behind Catalyst 2030 identify as “systems entrepreneurs” because they go beyond a project mentality, instead applying a systems-change methodology to their work while also aiming to elevate the sector as a whole.

“If you want to have systems change, you have to have the people who understand the system leading it,” Jeroo Billimoria, a co-founder of Catalyst 2030, told Devex.

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But systems entrepreneurship will not take hold across the social impact sector until donors change their ways, she said, adding that it remains easier to get money for projects than systems change.

Donors continue to ask questions around, for example, how many people have been fed or how many children have been helped with their money, rather than understanding that “systems change is about changing policies, mindsets, and behaviors,” Billimoria said.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how social entrepreneurs need to go from the sidelines to the front lines when decisions are being made, funds are being allocated, and policies are being shaped, she said.

Scaling up support

As COVID-19 spread globally, Catalyst 2030 members began to discuss whether the SDGs would be relevant as a focal point in the midst of a pandemic.

“But this community was very early onto the idea — which I think has become obvious to everyone now — that the systemic, structural shortfalls in society are massive Achilles’ heels,” said Matthew Bishop, who authored a Catalyst 2030 report compiling recommendations from social entrepreneurs on how to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis.

Catalyst 2030 members recognized that the SDGs provide a road map not only for making societies more resilient in dealing with shocks, but also a blueprint for what “building back better” looks like, he said.

While the COVID-19 pandemic drew attention to the value of social entrepreneurs, it also put severe strains on many of their organizations.

“If you want to have systems change, you have to have the people who understand the system leading it.”

— Jeroo Billimoria, co-founder, Catalyst 2030

“The main thing social entrepreneurs need right now is liquidity,” said Saskia Bruysten, co-founder and CEO of Yunus Social Business. “All the other things are really important, but if you’re about to die, you need additional infusion of blood.”

In May, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, which supports social entrepreneurs directly through its annual awards, launched the COVID Response Alliance, together with partners such as Yunus Social Business, to “amplify the support for social entrepreneurs under extreme stress by the pandemic.”

“It is a provider of these voices, a network of people working on the ground, not working in the ivory tower,” said Carolien de Bruin, who leads strategic initiatives at the Schwab Foundation.

She said initiatives like Catalyst 2030 and the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs are leading more social entrepreneurs “to play nice in the sandbox,” finding opportunities for collaboration and approaching funders jointly.

Last week, de Bruin brought business leaders together for a conversation on the alliance’s COVID-19 Action Agenda, discussing ways to “back entrepreneurs both as first responders to the crisis and pioneers of a new economic reality,” she said.

Getting a seat at the table

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What remains to be seen is whether these efforts to scale up support for systems-change approaches will lead entrepreneurs to be taken more seriously as partners in the sustainable development agenda.

“The opportunity of social entrepreneurship is not understood as well as it should be,” United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed acknowledged.

Speaking in a recent interview about the launch of the Catalyst 2030 report, Mohammed suggested the best point of engagement for social entrepreneurs would not be the United Nations headquarters in New York City, but rather U.N. resident coordinator offices in 131 countries, which are in a position to convene “spaces that you cannot get into right now.”

“By and large, we don’t have a general idea of what this [social entrepreneurship] is all about — and if we do, we don’t give it the priority, perhaps, of the opportunity,” Mohammed said.

Bishop told Devex the problem of people working in silos and making top-down decisions is even more likely to happen in the midst of a crisis.

“If you look back on previous crises, there tends to be a lot of money spent and a lot of decisions taken by people who have absolutely no clue what’s going on on the ground,” he said.

In crises, Bishop said, leaders tend to go for “shovel-ready projects,” which he defined as projects that have not made it through budget processes because they were on the margins.

“So you’re bringing in your marginally less-good projects, rather than saying, ‘Okay, let’s think about the future and reverse-engineer it back,’” he said.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.