Is the Girl Effect going off the rails? Exploring the pitfalls of “girlwashing”

Back in 2008, a coalition of funders put out the call…

There was a linchpin, a lever, an untapped well of power and potential for solving the world’s most pressing problems–and we were missing it. That unstoppable force, they said, was a teenage girl.

If you haven’t seen the 2-minute Girl Effect video manifesto (or if it’s been a while) watch it here.

From the Nike Foundation website: “In the 1990s, research from the Population Council and International Center for Research on Women began to show that when an adolescent girl in poverty is able to stay in school, delay marriage and delay having children, not only do her life chances radically change, but the children she will later have are far more likely to be healthy and educated. By investing more in girls, governments and international organizations could break the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next.

The Girl Effect is a movement. It’s about the unique potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves and the world. It’s about getting girls on to the global development stage and driving massive resources to them.”

In essence: “Girls are the most powerful force for change on the planet.”

With the explosion of girl-focused programs, partnerships, interventions and innovations that followed, the brown-skinned pre-teen girl has literally become the new poster child for social change. And we feel an urgency to raise the issue of “girlwashing”–using the emotional appeal and timeliness of the “Girl Effect” to promote, fund, and accelerate ventures that lack the kind of specific, holistic, deep impact on adolescent girls in poverty that the girl effect is really about. “Girl Effect” ventures run without girls, claiming “Girl Effect” impact based on theoretical behaviors, equating income generation with empowerment, and other manifestations of girlwashing undermine the power of this otherwise vital movement.

 

What is girlwashing?

Whenever a new discovery, insight or opportunity makes enough noise in the social impact space to generate significant grant money, investment capital, policy focus, media attention or public engagement, it seems to create a sort of gravitational pull throughout the sector. Individuals and organizations are drawn in; seemingly regardless of strategic alignment or capacity.

This tendency is clearly evident in the rash of companies (and NGOs) making extravagant and emotional claims about environmental stewardship and sustainability backed by substantially less impressive (or even nonexistent) actual changes to policy or practice–a phenomenon known as greenwashing, from which the concept of girlwashing takes its name.

As with greenwashing, there are varieties, degrees, and nuance to girlwashing. It can be as crass and blatant as running a find/replace on a grant proposal to change all “youth” references to “girls” in an appeal to the trendy funding. Or it can be as subtle and unintended as a program that doubles the time today’s teenage girls spend on homework…by shifting chores onto their now 6 to 9-year-old sisters. And, as with greenwashing, there’s room for a spirited and productive debate about whether girlwashing always does more harm than good.

 

Accelerating the Girl Effect

The ecosystem of impact incubators and accelerators have ridden the Girl Effect explosion along two main paths; girl-focused accelerators and accelerators focused on girls.  It may sound like semantics, but the wordplay illustrates a fundamental difference in approach.

Girl-focused accelerators seek to activate the Girl Effect by targeting female entrepreneurs and social ventures lead by girls. “By bringing more women into the startup community, we think businesses will make better decisions both for their bottom lines and their communities,” says Elizabeth Kraus of MergeLane.

Leaders of girl-focused accelerators specifically recruit female entrepreneurs and say they aim to tailor the program experience to take advantage of the unique strengths of girls; like stronger systems-thinking, user empathy, and team communication.

“We’ve designed a balanced approach to the issues that are more unique to women (like the common female need to have everything absolutely perfect before moving forward) and the more universal challenges faced by all early-stage startups,” Kraus says.

Accelerators focused on girls, on the other hand, have sought to leverage the Girl Effect by targeting entrepreneurs and ventures creating value for girls at the bottom of the pyramid, while remaining gender-neutral in their recruiting and selection. “What we came to realize,” said Daniel Epstein of the Girl Effect Accelerator in an email conversation “is that if we’re going to have a chance at denting poverty, then we need to position our efforts at Unreasonable, and those of world-class entrepreneurs, around the needs of adolescent girls in poverty.” One result of this focus on benefiting girls has been some of the sector, geography, audience and issue-based specialization we advocated in last month’s post.

 

So, how might impact accelerators be falling into girlwashing?

It’s important to acknowledge that we can only have this conversation because a few enterprising organizations (Girl Effect Accelerator , MergeLane, SPRING, the World Bank’s Gender Innovation Lab in Africa, and  Equita, among others) have taken the courageous and vulnerable leap to be first; to experiment, and lay bare the results of those experiments to the evaluation and critique that alone has the power to move us all forward.

We see three main trends that deserve a closer look:

 

FOR WOMEN…BY MEN

One of the pitfalls of this first generation of accelerators focused on girls (the Girl Effect Accelerator, for example) is that while the ventures were selected based on their potential to impact girls in poverty at scale, girls comprise only 40% of the participating founders, 30% of the ventures’ CEOs, and 20% of the mentors.

“There is a gadget-arian emphasis by men [in accelerators and in IT],” Gerardo Greco of the Gendered Innovation Accelerator explains, “with a culture of very strong individualism and very strong competitiveness.  [A model created in this environment] is not gender neutral – it is tailored for men.”

One sure way to tap the Girl Effect, he continues, is by “rewarding girls/women who find their own way in IT without mimicking approaches established by boys/men.”

Eneza provides students the ability to ask questions through its app that they are too shy to ask in class. The app wasn’t designed “for girls,” nor does its distinguishing feature exclusively benefit girls. But the program is outpacing the impact of its competitors by solving a problem overlooked by others–a problem experienced disproportionately by, and thus more clearly understood by, girls. The fact that the Eneza team is lead by women may perhaps be coincidental–but it’s hard to argue that the inclusion of more female voices in the leadership of potential Girl Effect ventures would not lead to design choices that increase their impact on girls.

We can’t help but wonder if more balanced gender leadership on the product teams of Apple, Google and Samsung, for example, might have placed menstrual cycle-tracking higher on the priority list of their respective health-tracking APIs.

But just because a venture has a male founder does not make it guilty of girlwashing. Jayashree Industries; an open-source manufacturing franchise for sanitary pads is a perfect example. It’s an organization founded by a man, developed in deep cooperation with women (in this case despite profound structural and cultural obstacles) and showing not a hint of girlwashing.

Conversely, simply being founded, run, or lead by girls does not guarantee a “Girl Effect” venture. Girlwashing happens when products and services are designed for and marketed to girls, but girls are cut out of the process. Impact accelerators can fight girlwashing by making deep participation by girls in the conception and design, if not the execution and leadership, of ventures one of their key selection criteria.

 

GIRL-COLOURED GLASSES

Like the proverbial (and equally distorted) rose-coloured variety, seeing the world through “girl-coloured glasses” masks complexity and glosses over the deep challenge of systemic and cultural barriers.

Just because something has the potential to impact girls’ lives for the better (like a solar lantern from Greenlight Planet that would allow them to study at night after their chores) does not guarantee that it will. If said lantern can help a girl’s father earn money, for example, what are the chances it gets left at home with the girl?

It’s a lot harder to de-prioritize a girl’s night-time studying when the light-source is bolted to the ceiling and illuminates the whole house (as in Off Grid: Electric’s model) for example.

Accelerators can fight girlwashing by selecting ventures that acknowledge systemic barriers and take strategic and creative steps to short-circuit them. As it happens, Greenlight applied for, and was accepted to the program, says Epstein, largely because “They had a hypothesis on their theory of change around girls and they wanted support in better understanding it, measuring it, and finding a way to ensure that they are TRULY impacting girls in poverty.”

Just as important as getting the model right is how accelerators communicate their focus and priorities and promote the Girl Effect ventures they support.

 

FLATTENED IMPACT

Another subtle face of girlwashing is the notion that women’s empowerment is synonymous with income generation, job creation, or even economic independence. Not to suggest these results aren’t positive, but the Girl Effect is about more than simply giving girls a way to make their own money.

Take, for example, the multi-dimensional impact inherent in EcoFuel. Not only do the women who work as micro-retailers of the product increase their incomes by a factor of 6, time spent gathering firewood (a task typically delegated to school-aged girls) is virtually eliminated, and cookstove smoke (a common cause of eye and lung infections in women and girls–who do most of the cooking) is greatly reduced.

In contrast, SOKO (a mobile marketplace for indigenous crafts) also provides dramatically increased income for female artisans and strives for wide-ranging impact on other aspects of their lives through company programs. But SOKO lacks the baked-in impact on critical elements of female empowerment beyond jobs and income that come with ventures that are multi-dimensional by their very nature, rather than through add-ons.

“We brought in a number of field experts, ‘girl experts,’ and data scientists to help the companies unravel their impact on girls and identify one key metric they will continue to measure,” says Epstein in his email. “Because our portfolio is focused across sectors, companies will be tracking their impact on girls related to education, contraception, access to clean energy and healthcare, economic inclusion, employment, empowerment, etc. ”

Accelerators can fight girlwashing by moving beyond ‘income as empowerment’ and helping participants track and understand their specific impact on girls in poverty.

 

When it comes to girlwashing, the core question is this:

Can you truly leverage the Girl Effect by accelerating ventures that benefit girls without representing, including, and empowering them? …or vice versa?

Girlwashing puts the impact of perhaps the most powerful insight of the past 20 years in jeopardy. And none of us wants that. Accelerators can play a key role curbing girlwashing and maximizing Girl Effect impact by: Making deep participation by girls in the design and leadership of a venture prerequisite for their selection process; selecting ventures that acknowledge and respond to systemic barriers; and helping ventures move beyond income generation to multi-dimensional impact they can understand and track.

__________________________________________________________________________________

The venture examples in this piece come from the Nike Foundation / Unreasonable partnership’s innaugural Girl Effect Accelerator, and we thank them for being trailblazers. We’re also grateful to Daniel Epstein of the Girl Effect Accelerator for answering a few questions over email, as well as contributions from Elizabeth Kraus of MergeLane, and Gerardo Greco of the Gendered Innovation Accelerator launching soon in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

 

Indigogo’s going global, but at what cost?

Crowdfunding giant Indiegogo’s re-launch last week, complete with features on CNBC, TechCrunch, Mashable and more, adds to the growing flood of evidence that this social phenomenon is poised to take the world by storm.

But in our enthusiasm, are we overlooking the disproportionate potential danger that storm (like any real-world hurricane) poses to the disenfranchised, the underprivileged, and the vulnerable?

I recently attended a conference session featuring Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringlemann on the topic of “megatrends” in the ecosystem of social good.

Danae is passionate, articulate and gracious, with plenty of moxy and just the right dash of incisive humor. She and the team at Indiegogo have created something truly impressive, and the crowd of social entrepreneurs, non-profit and government leaders was captivated by the idea and its potential.

As the conversation progressed, however, I found myself growing more and more uneasy.

Indiegogo’s “big idea” is the democratization of finance. They envision a world where “anyone can raise money for anything,” where success depends on market demand, not institutional gatekeepers. Forget application fees, there’s not even an application! It’s Laissez Faire for the 21st century. And in most arenas where crowdfunding has proven successful (artistic endeavors and product development especially) this is an effective, even elegant approach.  Though it’s important to note here that the role of social capital, often downplayed by crowdfunding platforms, arguably plays an even greater role than strict market forces like supply and demand.

Movies that big studios wouldn’t touch with a 10-ft pole have become festival darlings and blockbuster hits: see Appropriate Behaviour and Veronica Mars. Entrepreneurs who’ve never pitched a single VC now manufacture million-dollar products like The Porthole, Twine and Pebble. Careers are launched, boundaries broken, dreams realized.

But what happens when my dream is realized in your backyard?

According to the Indiegogo logic as Ringlemann explains it, “ideas that succeed have support from the marketplace and therefore should succeed. Period.”

So, me and my “market” get to dig a well in your village simply because we have the money to do it? I get to set up a homeless shelter downtown if I convince enough of my happily-homed network that it’s a good idea?

Your village may need and want a well, or it may not. (Though chances are, if you’re posting the project, it won’t get funded. Of the 9 well projects posted on Indiegogo by someone within the same country as the beneficiary community, none has received more than 10% of needed funding.) My homeless shelter may be efficient, empowering and perfectly suited to its context, or it may not. That’s not the point.

The bottom line is this: The market can’t validate an idea when the idea’s “customers” aren’t participants in the market.

Therefore platforms that rely on market validation as their only criterion for success essentially have NO criteria when it comes to social projects that happen for (read: to) unrepresented populations. Indiegogo is not alone here. CauseVox, Crowdrise, Pozible, Razoo and RocketHub are all in the same boat.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am the first to call out the inefficiency, exclusivity and risk aversion of the traditional gatekeepers of philanthropic funding. And I see immense potential for the social sphere in crowdfunding. But a completely hands-off, “anyone can raise money for anything” approach is inappropriate and irresponsible for many types of social projects.

In the name of democratization, we are disenfranchising.

If vetting and review—someone to represent the interests of the unrepresented ‘market’—simply doesn’t fit in the business model (heaven knows it’s complex and resource-intensive; ask any of the organizations who do it well,) then so be it.

But to claim that the same model that works beautifully for pop albums and tech gadgets applies just as well to community development projects is disingenuous at best, if not downright detrimental.

Dirty Development?

Got a note the other day from one of our donors:

I think this site is a great idea, and I went ahead and added my drops to the bucket, but I have to admit that I feel a little funny giving money to a country whose government is so violently homophobic. I know that’s all too common in sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s certainly no reason to deny children clean drinking water, but it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

And there in a nutshell is one of the great dilemmas of development work. In most of the countries with the greatest need in our world, social conditions are–shall we say–less than ideal.

By giving anything–money, resources, volunteers, even attention–to these countries, are we not somehow complicit in their corruption, their repression, their cruelty? Are we not somehow saying that it’s okay to be violently homophobic, to treat women like cattle, to make those who oppose you conveniently ‘disappear,’ to rule by fear and perpetuate idignity, to live in splendor while millions around you starve?

On the other hand, should all citizens of a country suffer because their government embezzles millions from the aid they receive? Should children continue to die of malaria because the government oppresses their mothers? Should peasants remain landless and destitute because their courts can’t be trusted?

Where’s the line? and how do you know when you cross it?

I don’t really have an answer–and the deeper I get into this world, the more often I get that “bad taste in my mouth.” Still, I believe in compassion, I believe in cooperation, and I believe that it is better in the long run to dig in and engage with a problem (even if you get your hands dirty) rather than standing on the sidelines waiting for the situation to be less messy.

Ghandi vs. Robin Hood

(or, Whether to Accept Federal $ through a Congressional Earmark)

Had an unexpected conversation this week–with a DC lobbyist (referred by an angel investing group we’ve been working with) who seems absolutely convinced we would be a “slam dunk” for some of the millions of federal dollars congress will allocate to various non-profits through this summer’s appropriations bills.

“Some” meaning on the order of 10x what we’ve spent on everything we’ve done so far—enough to finish building out the site, update the iPhone app, create a Facebook app, start our fellowship program, host a social entrepreneurship training conference, and establish our evaluation endowment. (Not to mention start paying some of our employees a livable wage…)

So, what’s the catch, right? There isn’t one—except if you consider the fact that the money would come through earmarks in the bill a catch.

The IDEALIST says that earmarks were originally developed as way to empower members of congress to bypass the crippling bureaucracy of the executive branch agencies to fund time-sensitive projects for the good of the people.

The CYNIC says that earmarks are a symbol of all that’s wrong with government—a loophole exploited by corrupt politicians and lobbyists too mired in the morass of personal and political favors to even see it’s wrong.

The REALIST says that such diametric thinking is almost always an oversimplification and that the practice is still used in both those ways to accomplish both those ends.

The PRAGMATIST says that if they’re going to toss money around (and they are), we might as well be open for the pass, especially if we can catch it without getting our hands dirty.

Those are the voices screaming at each other in my head. What do you think?

Social Entrepreneurship: Economics of a Generation

Not often does a blog post get me to drop everything and respond. But suggesting that social entrepreneurship training sets up an entire generation for failure gets my attention.

The argument (proposed by Josh Cohen and Aaron Hurst of the Taproot Foundation) centers around the burgeoning demand among the emerging US workforce for careers that allow them to make a living and a difference, and social entrepreneurship and innovation training universities have begun providing in response. They conclude:

“Leading social entrepreneurship program Ashoka offers only 110 fellowships in the United States, and other social entrepreneurship opportunities are equally limited.
With 100,000 MBA graduates annually, social entrepreneurship is not a scalable solution for engaging Generation Y in work that fulfills their desire to make a positive impact.”

So…we’re setting this incredibly driven, innovative, ethical (even compassionate) generation up for failure because we don’t have a fellowship available for all 100K MBAs–not to mention the millions graduating in other fields equally committed to making a difference in the world?!

Last I checked, huge demand and limited supply was the perfect recipe for opportunity, not failure.

Social Innovation fellowships, though wonderful programs and responsible for much of the ‘boost’ the field has received in recent years, are NOT the essence of social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship/enterprise/innovation is about perceiving opportunities, engaging stakeholders, and iterating solutions. And the field is flexible and emergent enough to allow each of those self-actualizing individuals to make a difference in their own way.

So, no, we don’t need a new conceptual framework. We need to dig in and get our hands dirty, engaging with a generation determined to make a difference as the myriad faces of “social entrepreneurship.”

PS: Check out Nathaniel Whittmore’s response here

The Social Change Drive-Thru

“Hi. I’d like a global micro-credit initiative, a large order of AIDS education a-a-a-nd…a maternal health clinic”

“Would you like to eradicate malaria with that?”

Sure, it sounds ridiculous. But the McDonaldization of society is has significant implications for social change in general and philanthropy and social entrepreneurship in particular.

Here’s an example: our most recent bucket–a partnership to provide cataract surgeries and training in Uganda–tipped this morning. (yay!) And we’ve already received numerous requests for photos, video, and other updates on the status of the program. (They’re not even on the plane yet, people!?) Nothing says “American” like instant gratification, eh?

This is exactly the attitude that the founders of Kiva perceptively tapped in setting up their program as a person-to-person loan experience. You select an entrepreneur (May I take your order?) make a loan (Sure. I’d like…) and within days or weeks start getting updates on the repayment of your loan and the success of that entrepreneur’s micro-business (Thank-you! Have a nice day.)

It’s apparent to all but the most casual observer that the cycle there is WAY shorter than the time it would actually take that particular $25 to make it through the system of international banks, national micro-finance institutions and local loan officers to the individual borrower (even if that pathway weren’t a morass of bureaucracy), let alone for that borrower to bring together all the other forms of capital (human, social, natural, etc.) necessary to launch and grow a business and begin repaying the loan. Yet, many Kiva users were distraught (and even angry) to discover that the individual borrowers profiled on the site had actually been given loans months ago.

Granted, there are many other issues in the current conversation about Kiva (and microfinance in general)–interest rates, revolving-door loans, profit, and more–but the “revelation” about this time delay opened the can of worms.

So, which is it, America? You want an authentic giving experience (the exact dollars you contribute going to the exact project you chose to support) or you want to see photos of newly-sighted Ugandans within hours of your gift? You can’t have both.

Changing the world is not a drive-thru. (We have figured out, incidentally, how to put it on the dollar menu, though. Check it out.)

Sustainability Outside the Box

You pretty much would have to have been living in a cave for the past decade not to have picked up on the sustainability buzz sweeping through sectors from chemical production to health care to broadcast journalism. The Wikipedia entry on “Sustainability” has had almost daily editing activity for the past three years and includes more than 300 (top notch) citations/references. Still, the definition is far from universally understood and far from static.

Ratner points out that the whole concept may be expressed as statements of fact, intent, or value with sustainability treated as either a “journey” or a “destination.” In terms of media attention and general public awareness, sustainability is primarily an environmental issue. We think of “going green” and carrying cute canvas bags to the super market. But succession planning and resource utilization strategy are just as much part of sustainability as those cute canvas bags.

The United Nations Brundtland Commission articulated what has now become a widely accepted definition of sustainability: “[to meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

To many, sustainability is nothing more than a funding strategy. But sustainability for social change has to be about more than just funding. Hildy Gottlieb puts it a bit more colorfully; “all the money in the world will not sustain that house if the foundation is crumbling or there is no one who cares about the house.” A holistic (I suppose one could even say a “sustainable”) approach to sustainability must account for the utilization and management of all kinds of resources or capital: human, social, financial, intellectual, natural, etc.

Measuring, or even just accurately describing, dimensions of sustainabili250px-sustainable_developmentsvgty requires deep understanding of the underlying systems (Smil, 2000). This can be as simple as maintaining energy balance (calories in = activity out) in a human system or as complex as quantifying the carbon footprint of New York City. Either way, assessing the sustainability of a system necessitates in-depth examination of the social, environmental, and economic resources involved–and their various interactions.

Systems require inputs, and have three basic options for obtaining those resources; they can either be embedded in the goods and services of world trade; taken from the past (e.g. fossil fuels); or taken from the future as unsustainable resource usage. Social Entrepreneurship’s historic reliance on grant funding is a prime example of resources taken from the past. And the rest of us seem to floundering somewhere in the goods and services of world trade, trying to figure out where those resources might be embedded, and how best to get at them.

A critical transition taking hold among the corporate giants in that system of world trade is the idea of sustainability as a competitive advantage The Cisco thinktank has articulated S2AVE (Shareholder and Social Added Value with Environment restoration), to emphasize how organizations can successfully and profitably address all three elements of the ‘triple bottom line’ simultaneously through innovation. Stated plainly, this represents re-envisioning sustainability efforts as value creation rather than simply risk management. It implies moving beyond the dooms-day predictions or barely supressed panic induced by dwindling grant funds and on to working creatively and concertedly on how we can best meet needs (perhaps better and more important than meeting goals) today, tomorrow, and beyond.

“Seeing” Female Social Entrepreneurs

A genuine answer to Teju’s genuine question: “Where are all the Women?”

Each of us encounters more information in every moment of everyday life than we can possibly consciously process. So, as a natural survival mechanism, we developed ways to skim information, pick out the important bits and let the rest fade into the background. To recognize examples (and non-examples) of things, we form “schemas” for them.

So, when we’re looking for apples, objects that are elongated…or orange…or metallic…are automatically (efficiently) rejected. These schemas save us enormous amounts of time. In fact, individuals unable to form them are usually unable to function in society.

But what happens when something contradicts our schemas?

Barring some kind of conscious effort, we simply don’t see them. They don’t register as members of the set we’re looking for. With conscious effort we can get past the double-takes, and reconcile the mismatch with a conscious exception–that often comes out in language (eg. “male nurse.”)

Women simply don’t fit most people’s schema of the entrepreneur–so when they look around for entrepreneurs, they see men. (Case in point: GOOD magazine writes about the innovative Thrust Fund, and calls Kjerstin Erikson a man.)

Perhaps it’s because women place greater value on teams and networks and tend to exhibit less of the “charismatic lone wolf” leadership style we’ve come to expect from entrepreneurs. Perhaps it’s because the organizations they lead tend to experience less of the financial volatility and drama we associate with entrepreneurship. Perhaps it’s just good old-fashioned sexism.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that despite their under-representation in research, funding and the media, there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of female social entrepreneurs out there working for sustainable social change–and doing a bang-up job of it.

It’s time we all learned to “see” them.

Social Entrepreneur Search

Last week, Social Edge formally rolled out Social Entrepreneur Search (read the full announcement here) an open-source database designed to encourage “finders” and “funders” to support the efforts of successful social entrepreneurs.

Anyone can customize and embed the widgets that access the search data and even use the search to highlight specific entrepreneurs, regions, issue areas, or funders by creating and embedding custom widgets like this one–a spotlight on social entrepreneurs working in Health and funded by the Skoll Foundation:

<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://seapi.dk.exygy.com/js/embed.js”></script><script type=”text/javascript”>exygy_embed_results(“9″,”572349203″,”0″,”IA==”,”colorRed”, “http://seapi.dk.exygy.com/”);</script>

The project gets plenty of “cool” points in and of itself, but here are some reasons I find it truly remarkable:

First, the project represents a true collaboration.These organizations recognized a need–for the entrepreneurs they support, not necessarily themselves–and took concrete steps to fill it. They put aside organizational ego, stepped out of their own silos, and fronted the resources to build something open, extensible and powerful.

Second, the search is a step toward what we’ve taken to calling “catalytic capital.” The open database of vetted programs could encourage more organizations interested in social entrepreneurship but lacking the experience and human capital to vet projects themselves, to venture into the space and could help address some of the growth capital issues many of these remarkable organizations face after they’ve tapped the typical major funders.

And third, as a free resource equally accessible to interested individuals, educators and media representatives from the brand-new blogger to the New York Times, the Social Entrepreneur Search has the potential to raise the profile of social enterprise, so the examples of successful (and even struggling) social entrepreneurs the world over can inspire innovation and challenge the status quo on an ever grander, and ever more personal scale.

A little nagging concern stems from the fact that all of the participating organizations are mezzanine funders (and therefore nearly all of the social entrepreneurs featured in the database are beyond the startup phase). The Social Entrepreneur Search won’t turn up the next paradigm-shifting changemaker. And given the typical foundation’s aversion to anything “not invented here,” and the typical reporter’s blood-lust for the scoop, I wonder how well it will actually attract funding and exposure for the featured organizations.

The search may also inadvertantly reinforce what Charles Light calls the social entrepreneurship “cult of personality”–a focus on the contributions of a few singular luminaries that leaves thousands of other individuals, teams and organizations striving in relative isolation to build meaningful social change “often reinventing the wheel as they struggle to discern lessons from a relatively small number of exemplary peers.”

Still, the search is undeniably a step in the right direction–and may well provide both a solid foundation and a jumping-off point for genuine collaborative efforts that will help expand the field and magnify the impact of social entrepreneurship in this next decade.

Puppets and Puppeteers

Case study for Participatory Development:

As I’ve seen in my experience (with our student council and also with “taking stewardship” of the hay fields at home), we are set up in a relatively superficial system of “student leadership” or “being our own boss”–there is ALWAYS someone with higher authority playing a prominent puppeteer. It’s a bad relationship because the kids know it, so they loosen their grip on whatever influence they hold and become lazy–relying on that puppeteer to jerk their arm where it needs to go. And the puppeteer gets so set on the “system” of strings attached that they lose sight of the fact that they are only supposed to hold the limbs of the puppet upright and watch them move themselves. If a puppet becomes less aware of the strings attached to it and more aware of its ability to direct its own movements, it will move more (that just seems natural in my mind–I even picture the puppet growing muscular from use. And as the puppeteer twitches the strings less, they will find that their shoulders ache less from holding the system up and they will be able to enjoy the smoother, freer movements of their show.”

Who knows, the puppets might even come up with a brand new dance that makes the audience go wild and the show will be sold out for weeks!