Civil society, the so-called third sector, is a vibrant and evolving hub of innovation and creative solutions. In recent years, civil society has started to shed its image as an alternative to government and business. Cooperation between all three sectors is paramount, but traditional organizational roles in each sector are blurring.
The call for social innovations is growing along with a need for entrepreneurial businesses with fresh perspectives to address global challenges historically viewed as nonprofit causes. For example, programs like the White House’s Social Innovation Fund support faster, more sustainable innovation to deal with social challenges. Many of these programs are goal-oriented and recognize the need to do more with less. The emphasis is on scaling up performance for already successful solutions. In most cases, selection is based on the social enterprises’ organizational performance rather than the team behind the organization.
While identifying high-potential social enterprises is one pathway to spur social innovation in the short term, there is an outstanding need to develop individual social entrepreneurs who can build new organizations long term. An organization’s success or failure often rests with the founding social entrepreneur.
Foundations play a key role in developing social entrepreneurs. Among them, the Ashoka Foundation stands out for its world-class Ashoka Fellows program, which seeks to grow social entrepreneurs into change-makers who can bring about systematic improvements to address social issues. According to Yuhyun Park, a 2013 Ashoka Fellow and CEO of infollutionZERO — a social initiative focused on digital citizenship education for kids — the program “recognizes the importance of the social entrepreneur as a connector in order to drive forward cross-sector partners that deliver impactful outcomes.”
My ongoing research at the University of Pennsylvania involves researching how the Ashoka Fellows program achieves this goal and developing a learning framework that can be applied to social entrepreneurs in general. One of the key elements is understanding the roles leadership and other soft skills play in giving social entrepreneurs a platform to build successful cross-sector partnerships.
At present, the Ashoka Foundation and similar organizations primarily work with successful social entrepreneurs who have already affected local communities and are looking to broaden their reach. There is still room to reach budding social entrepreneurs at earlier stages. One key issue is that many potential social entrepreneurs may not know what development steps to take or whom to connect with. Proactive engagement from learning organizations is essential and must focus on helping individuals grow into full-fledged social entrepreneurs.
Exactly how to achieve this goal is open to debate. What are the distinguishing factors in this group, and how can we develop social entrepreneurs? The question has captured the attention of many governments and foundations interested in social innovation. One of the biggest opportunities lies in rethinking how to spur social innovation by adopting a people-centric approach.
Beyond concentrating resources on a select few successes and emphasizing performance, we should be exploring ways to build a sustainable culture of social innovation that empowers and trains individuals. Indeed, social entrepreneurship is deeply rooted in leadership practices, which are teachable. At a time when new approaches are urgently needed in many sectors, tapping on this potential is a timely endeavor.
Developing social entrepreneurs is an important step forward in learning development. Effective actions require building a team that combines resources and capabilities from different sectors, placing the social entrepreneur in the position of orchestrator. The necessary skills extend far beyond a passion to improve society and call for effective management and communication.
We need to understand the needs and challenges of social entrepreneurs, and how learning programs can help them thrive. Governments and foundations should further explore learning initiatives that stimulate social innovation. Now is the time to build a learning culture for social entrepreneurs.
Dong-Joon Cho is the chief learning officer of infollutionZERO and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.