Many thanks to Graham for allowing me to post some ideas about our new book, The Power of Social Innovation…
One of the ways we introduce the book is in the context of existing literature on social entrepreneurship:
Many have written on the efforts and attributes of individual “social entrepreneurs,” a term popularized by the exceptional work of Bill Drayton of Ashoka. Notable contributions include How to Change the World by David Bornstein; The Power of Unreasonable People, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan; and Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek’s Life Entrepreneurs. Recent books such as Forces for Good, by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, and The Charismatic Organization, by Shirley Sagawa and Deb Jospin, chronicle the features of high–performing organizations run by social entrepreneurs. This book builds on those insights but looks beyond entrepreneurial individuals and organizations to entrepreneurial networks and fertile communities.
In truth the books we listed are all fairly recent and fall within a narrow sliver of a young field. The topics we write about build on much more extensive discourses in the fields of public management, nonprofit management, networked governance, social policy, urban planning, education policy, and more.
During our research we often identified some underexplored tension between government and social innovators, only to be reminded that many others had studied and written on that very topic. For example Charles Leadbeater, whom Graham has highlighted on this blog, has been writing about social innovation and civic entrepreneurship, two concepts we came to embrace in our research, for at least a decade.
Our own research began with an executive session at the Harvard Kennedy School. The sessions, which spanned two years, brought Harvard faculty together with practitioners and leading thinkers to dialogue and push forward the “frontier” at the nexus of government and social entrepreneurship.
One member introduced herself to the group by saying, “I didn’t know I was a social entrepreneur until I got here today.” Other members were constantly reminding the rest of the group (comprised of progressive and/or innovative social entrepreneurs and city officials) that there is a long tradition in working class communities and in communities of color of social innovation and change, from unions providing basic services like housing to the creation of historically Black colleges and universities. Many found the “modern” social entrepreneur movement elitist and under-appreciative of history.
The mayors in the room, meanwhile, wanted to make sure the new generation of social entrepreneurs understood, as effective as their model might be, that they could only help with but one of a hundred issues cities regularly face. And that there was no way any new idea could ever be imported or moved beyond the margins without serious political maneuvering. We supplemented the sessions by talking to some 100 entrepreneurs from across sectors in order to find tangible solutions to these early insights and concerns.
I think our book’s contribution to the social innovation literature then, to put it more precisely, is to:
- bring more attention to this idea of social innovation coming from among the public sector;
- begin to examine social innovation more closely in the context of local social service delivery systems, in particular those systems dominated by government dollars and rules;
- encourage social entrepreneurs to engage, rather than avoid, government as part of their mandate, vision and theory of change; and
- bring attention (and offer some strategies showing early signs of progress) to the stumbling blocks and barriers—whether they be cultural, political or bureaucratic—that are holding back the progress that social innovation promises.