Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

What are the limits of the social entrepreneurship model?

Two articles recently caught our attention.  In the indispensable Harvard Business Review, Lara Galinsky writes that “Not Everyone Should be a Social Entrepreneur.”  An excerpt:

We need to help young people start their professional lives by asking questions. What issues, ideas, people, and projects move them deeply? What problems are theirs to own? How can they combine their heads and hearts to address those problems? What is their unique genius and how can it be of use to the world beyond themselves? They needn’t be founders of new organizations to have an impact on the world. But they should be founders of their careers. 

Likewise, in the equally great Stanford Social Innovation Review, Rich Tafel proclaims that “Social Entrepreneurs Must Stop Throwing Starfish.”  By starfish throwing, he refers to this anecdote: “A man walking along a shore covered with washed-up, dying starfish notices a boy throwing them back into the ocean, one by one. The man says to the boy that there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish, and that he’ll never make a difference. As the boy throws a starfish back into the ocean, he says, “I just made a difference to that one.”” Tafel’s conclusion is spot on:

Starfish throwing, like charity, isn’t a bad thing, but it is not a solution. When we confuse charity and justice, we perpetuate injustice. True world change requires more of its leaders. We must have the courage to work within our complex systems to change the rules. Foundations that fund nonprofits must take the lead. They must ask potential grantees what root causes, policies, rules, and systems their innovation will engage to bring lasting world change. These simple questions will force the social change agents to find ways to create lasting change—to do more than throw starfish.

What are the implications of these articles for the MCSE?  First, we need to disabuse our students of the idea that that ‘social entrepreneur’ is in the same professional category as ‘doctor’, ‘lawyer,’ or ‘teacher.’  Fortunately, our colleagues at Middlebury’s Center for Education in Action are brilliant in helping students to think about ‘connecting learning to life.’ If you are a student reading this and want begin to ask the questions raised by Galinsky, make an appointment with our colleagues at EIA. Second, we need to encourage our students to think deeply, to challenge everything they think they know. On our campus, any number of our departments and programs have leading faculty who teach about social change: Soc/Anthro, ES, Political Science, IP & E, and Economics, just for starters.

So before you propose, say, a new Davis Peace Project or a new MCSE Grant, ask yourself some questions:

  • What will I learn from this project? How will it teach me about leading a life of meaning?
  • What is my model of social change? If my project is approved and implemented, how likely is it to make a long-term difference in the lives of others? Why?

Throughout the Middlebury ecosystem, you will find professors, staff, fellow students and alums who will be eager to help you answer these questions.

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