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Social entrepreneurship: what it is, how it works, and where it’s going

A review of Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know, by David Bornstein and Susan Davis

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

After three decades of increasingly widespread public attention, a surprisingly large number of commentators in the field of social entrepreneurship continue to argue about the most basic question of all: What is a social enterprise, and what isn’t? In this superb little book, David Bornstein and Susan Davis straightforwardly put this question to rest: “Social entrepreneurship is a process by which citizens build or transform institutions to advance solutions to social problems, such as poverty, illness, illiteracy, environmental destruction, human rights abuses, and corruption, in order to make life better for many.” So much for all those deconstructionists who contend that a social enterprise must never turn a profit, or must always turn a profit, or must address some sorts of problems but not others!

As an introduction to the field, Social Entrepreneurship is unmatched.

Most books on social entrepreneurship feature case studies or vignettes starring some of the field’s most innovative and successful individuals. This was the case with an earlier book of Bornstein’s, How to Change the World, which is widely (and rightfully) regarded as “the bible” of the field. By contrast, the three short chapters that constitute Social Entrepreneurship ask and answer the most fundamental questions that any reader unfamiliar with the pursuit of social change might ask, first clarifying the definition of social entrepreneurship, then examining the practical challenges practitioners face, and finally “Envisioning an Innovating Society.” In that third chapter, Bornstein and Davis discuss how government, academia, business, philanthropy, and the news media might contribute to fashioning the “everyone a changemaker” world posited by Ashoka’s Bill Drayton.

As the authors point out, “Social entrepreneurs have always existed. But in the past they were called visionaries, humanitarians, philanthropists, reformers, saints, or simply great leaders. Attention was paid to their courage, compassion, and vision but rarely to the practical aspects of their accomplishments. Thus, people may know about the moral teachings of St. Francis but not about how the Franciscans became the fastest growing religious order of its day. Children learn that Florence Nightingale ministered to wounded soldiers but not that she built the first professional school for nurses and revolutionized hospital construction. Gandhi is remembered for demonstrations of nonviolent rsistance but not for building a decentralized political apparatus that enabled India to make a successful transition to self-rule.” And if St. Francis, Florence Nightingale, and Gandhi exemplified the isolated and occasional social entrepreneurs of yesteryear, there are thousands of courageous individuals now walking parallel paths to institutional change on every continent — backed up by a growing suport network that includes Ashoka, the Skoll Foundation, the Schwab Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Avina, and many other organizations. Given the enormity of the challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century, their combined efforts may represent our last, best hope to create a world in which our grandchildren can live healthy, rewarding lives.

David Bornstein and Susan Davis came to the task of writing this book with impeccable qualifications. In addition to How to Change the World, which went into a second edition in 2007, Bornstein wrote The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank, first published in 1996. He is the preeminent journalist in the field. Davis is a supremely accomplished activist, having served as a founding member of the Grameen Foundation and then co-founding BRAC USA, which she serves as President and CEO. (BRAC began its institutional life as a Bangladeshi nonprofit, later expanding to many other countries around the world. It is regarded as the world’s largest NGO.) She also helps select Ashoka Fellows. Previously, she held a series of senior positions with the Ford Foundation, Women’s World Banking, the International Labor Organisation, and other institutions.


Filed under Business, Nonfiction