Social Entrepreneurship – a good (but not great) book to read

Book review of Social Entrepreneurship

My introduction to David Bornstein’s writing was How to change the world. And I think that it is an excellent book and I will recommend reading it. So, when I found out (well Amazon told me !) that he was collaborating with Susan Davis (of Grameen foundation) to write a book on Social Entrepreneurship, I said, sign me up for it. What caught my eye was not the title of the book but the subtitle of it – What everyone needs to know (about social entrepreneurship). The table of contents was also impressive

  1. Defining social entrepreneurship
  2. Challenges of causing change
  3. Envisioning an innovating society

The table of contents didn’t talk about anything specific and I thought may be the contents would be a bit more specific. But, I was a tad disappointed that the book is not as specific as I would have liked it to be.

Let’s look at each section. The first section is the definition of social entrepreneurship. This section gives enough background about social entrepreneurship. For those who don’t have an active interest in this field, I think this section does an excellent job about giving enough background regarding the field. This section is sort of a primer for soc-entrepreneurs, defining the typical characteristics of a social entrepreneur, when the field as a separate entity got recognized and which are the important organizations currently in operation. This section is definitely recommended for anyone who wants to know how social entrepreneurship differs from (say) activism. And there is a section which deals with that too. The definition clearly gives a perspective on social entrepreneurship. Quoting the book

Activism can be thought of as a subset of social entrepreneurship, one of the many tactics employed to advance change. The simplest distinction is that, activists generally seek to elicit change by influencing decision making of large institutions or by changing public attitudes, while social entrepreneurs pursue a wider range of options, including building institutions that directly implement solutions themselves.

This provides the clear distinction between an activist protesting about something and a social entrepreneur tackling the same problem (say for example, the childline in India) by starting an organization. Another important sub-section in this section is the What does a social entrepreneur do?. This section defines the role of a social entrepreneur. From the book –

The system changer must therefore overcome apathy, habit, incomprehension, and disbelief while facing heated resistance from those with vested interests. Social entpreneurs have to figure out how to make it happen.

I think, that sort of defines the role of a social entrepreneur.

The second section is about the challenges of causing change. Very few people like change, even though change might be constant. It is the struggle to get acceptance for the change which is the first hurdle for any social entrepreneur. And the next challenge is the finance. Or may be it is the other way round ! Finance of the operation is a major struggle for any entrepreneur, even more so for a social entrepreneur. Unlike an entrepreneur, there might not be financial returns for a social entrepreneur; and even if there were; they might be either meagre or insufficient, happening in a sporadic fashion. Given the uncertainty of the returns, the first concern for any social entrepreneur is to raise the finances for the cause for his/her own sustenance and eventually the organization’s growth. In this section, the authors explain the various ways social organizations have raised capital. Organizations like The Skoll foundation, Ashoka, Civic ventures, New profit inc, micro-entrepreneur connectors like Kiva, RangDe (the authors don’t write about RangDe), KYC4 are the typical sources of funding.One important thing to note though – all of these organizations are willing to fund entrepreneurs who are willing to execute on a plan. It is very important to understand that a social entrepreneur should have some sort of an operation going before (s)he can garner more founds from these organizations. Merely having an idea and looking for funds generally doesn’t help. Another challenge for any social entrepreneur is attracting talent and scaling the organization. This is going to be always a challenge. That is why you will never see a very large social organization. Even if they are, they typically would be backed by some public body ensuring a constant fund-stream. So, it is important for social entrepreneurs to understand these challenges. In this section, the authors explain some of the challenges, though, they do admit that attracting good talent is going to be a challenge. It is about the person appealing to a different aspect of the prospective employee to interest him/her to join the organization. Of course, the cause alone won’t be able to attract talent and enough financial incentive should be available for anyone to join an organization.

An interesting sub-section in this one is – What is the difference between scale and impact. In this section, the authors write about how a larger impact can be made by organizations which already have the scale. It is like how Thomas Friedman explains in this interview about changing leaders instead of bulbs. Unless there is no scale, all we will have is a hobby. Though, that seems a bit far too hard on people dealing with micro-changes, it is something that should be at the back of everyone’s mind. However much impact is important, scale is equally important too. So, it is not about starting an idea alone, it is also about scaling that idea that a social entrepreneur (a successful one i.e.) thinks about.

The final section is very generic. It talks about how to inculcate the qualities of innovation in a society. Most of it is applicable for for-profit enterprises too. So, I won’t delve too much into it. There is though, one part of this where the authors talk about how philanthropy can be more effective. This is an important aspect of any social organization and for the funding organizations. In this, the authors suggest a few things to philanthropists about how to engage with social entrepreneurs. Things like

  • Help social entrepreneurs engage more with businesses and governments
  • Fund structural supports for social entrepreneurs
  • Stick with things that work and communicate early (I think this is contrary to the next one)
  • let organizations die (an implication of this is that people should be willing to try things that might not work too)
  • Help social entrepreneurs work together

The final section is very interesting, wherein the authors talk about how individuals can prepare themselves to be part of a the field of social entrepreneurship. This is sort of a high level design document about what one can do before becoming a social entrepreneur full time. The authors don’t get very specific, they talk very generally about what are things that one can do. It would have been nicer if they could have gotten a bit specific and illustrate with some examples of existing social organizations.

So, what do I think about this book. I think this book is a good one. I expected specific examples like the previous work of one of the authors. But this book is not about specifics. And the flow is not always kept going. The narrative can drift away sometimes. I read this book twice to get the gist of it (it is not a very large book). Maybe because I was aware of most of the things that the authors were talking about, I didn’t find it very interesting. Maybe for someone who is a beginner in the field, it might be very helpful. I will still suggest this book – whether you are a pro or a beginner in the field. A 6 out of 10.