Can a single social entrepreneur be a system changer?

In our last blog post, we talked about the possibility of making a difference – sometimes, an even bigger one – through systems strengthening instead of direct intervention. According to Pamela Hartigan, Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, the essence of social entrepreneurship is indeed systems change. Yet, can a single social entrepreneur be a system changer? For social entrepreneurs, whose biggest difficulty is being small, what are the possible avenues to systems change? And what are the ‘systems’ to be changed?

Answering the latter question requires us to revisit the roots of social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs are said to be ‘the hottest game in town and the buzzword of the decade’ in the philanthropy world. This buzzword has caught on after the Global Financial Crisis, when many disillusioned bankers became social entrepreneurs. The system to be changed is mainstream capitalism, whose unrestrained maximization of profits led to the fall of Lehman Brothers and the like. Social enterprises also aim to challenge the systems which cause the social and/or environmental problems they are set to solve, from healthcare to education. But at the heart of all social enterprises is the system of mainstream capitalism which, as Pamela Hartigan argues, creates a false dichotomy between profit and purpose.

Exactly 70 years ago, when the word social entrepreneurship was unheard of, the first compelling critique of mainstream capitalism in England was published by Karl Polanyi. In his book The Great Transformation, he famously said, ‘the true criticism of market society was… that its economy was based on self-interest’. Polanyi’s conclusion is that the economy can only be sustainable if it is embedded into society. In other words, profit and purpose should be embedded into each another.

For decades and centuries, academics have written about challenging mainstream capitalism, but to little avail. Can a single social entrepreneur then take on this formidable challenge? Professor Muhammad Yunus is an example of someone who can. Through founding the Grameen Bank, which now serves over 7 million poor women in Bangladesh, he pioneered microfinance as an innovative model of lending to the poor. He leads in promoting social entrepreneurship not only in Bangladesh, but also globally. Apart from Grameen Bank, he co-founded many other ventures including Grameen Creative Lab, which aims at spreading social business throughout Europe and the world.

Although social entrepreneurs are constrained by the scale of their organisations, what they can do is to collaborate instead of to compete. According to Pamela Hartigan, microfinance was only transformed closer to mainstream investing after ’30 years and an estimated US$20 billion in subsidies from major foundations and individual philanthropists’. The example of Professor Yunus shows that it does take individual social entrepreneurs who inspire others to deliver and who galvanize support globally. It is only through collaboration could systemic change be achieved.

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