Books: It's not the deal but the ideal

Social entrepreneurs are like their wealth-creating counterparts but their motive is to improve the lot of communities. Ian Wylie hails this study of the phenomenon.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Power of Unreasonable People: How social entrepreneurs create
markets that change the world
John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan
Harvard Business Press, £15.99

The Americans have, of course, invented a name for it: the 'encore career'. Orlando Rincon Bonilla was born into a family of 10 in a barrio of Cali in Colombia, where he battled against the odds to win a scholarship at the University of Medellin.

With a classmate, he set up a software business that over the next 15 years became wildly successful. But Rincon was not happy - and quit to start ParqueSoft, a non-profit innovation park for budding software writers from poor communities.

Embarking on an encore career means turning your back on the mainstream corporate world to find meaning by using your experience in ways that have a positive impact on society. Kyle Zimmer, for example, realised while volunteering as a tutor to children in Washington DC that she didn't want to be an attorney any more. With two other lawyers, Zimmer founded First Book to give children from low-income families access to low-cost books.

Zimmer and Rincon are two of the many social entrepreneurs whose business model and modus operandi are observed by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan in The Power of Unreasonable People. We are waking up to a world in need of change. By the end of this decade, more than 100 million people will have been affected by Aids. More than a billion people do not have clean water. Half of our world's population live on less than £1 a day. We - they - need innovative solutions to basic social problems.

Around the world, social entrepreneurs are responding, building organisations to provide everything from Aids advice to micro-finance. A large chunk of the future depends on these social entrepreneurs and their (at first glance) slightly unhinged ideas.

In the UK, social enterprise already contributes more than £8bn to Britain's economy and employs 800,000 people. A sector that little more than three years ago was on the margins is becoming mainstream. Elkington can take some of the credit for this, a pioneer of working collaboratively with big businesses like BT, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart on environmental and social issues.

A 'dean of the corporate responsibility movement', Elkington was writing about climate change 30 years ago. His million-selling Green Consumer Guide (1988) was the first book to suggest that what we buy has a bearing on the future of the planet.

With Hartigan, managing director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, Elkington takes readers on a global trek from the rarefied elite of Davos to the slum-dwellers of Sao Paulo as we meet his heroes of unreasonableness. The book takes its title from George Bernard Shaw, who reckoned that while the reasonable man adapts himself to the world, 'the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.'

Unreasonably and perhaps with insane ambition, these social entrepreneurs think they know enough of the future to gamble on goods and services that few 'reasonable' entrepreneurs would consider. We learn that although social entrepreneurs share the characteristics of all entrepreneurs - innovative, resourceful, opportunistic - they are motivated not by 'the deal' but 'the ideal'. And because achieving the ideal takes, well, just a bit longer, social entrepreneurs are in it for the long haul.

It's a passionate argument for business as a force for change, a new order where social enterprises supplant the charities and NGOs of an earlier generation and business leaders short-circuit CSR programmes for business models that provoke social change. Critics complain that social entrepreneurship is too vague an idea. But ambiguity and adaptability are its pillars.

The most interesting experiments in The Power of Unreasonable People take place in a blurry area where hybrid organisations, from 'leveraged non-profits' to 'social businesses', seek untapped forms of funding and market opportunities. Many of the people profiled here will, wittingly or not, have benefited from Elkington's previous writings. And although Elkington and Hartigan are hardly the first to dissect the social entrepreneur phenomenon, the book is a well-reasoned study by authors as close to the action as anyone.

With the book, we also begin to probe longer-term questions such as how to build sustainable social enterprises and why Europe produces fewer social entrepreneurs than elsewhere.

Familiarity with their theme and their interview subjects occasionally leads the authors into rose-tinted adulation. Social entrepreneurs are at the 'good fun to be around' end of the spectrum, unburdened by Napoleon or Superman complexes. I suspect their PAs or assistants might hold a different opinion. If the motives of most social entrepreneurs are beyond doubt, the relationship between ego and the quest for meaning and significance is a complex one that is not examined here.

Similarly, a recent report by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts identifies a 'relentless focus' of many social entrepreneurs on growing their own organisations rather than on developing the core idea that creates social value. Successful enterprises, in whatever field, are usually the product of teams, not just inspired individuals. If social enterprise is to infect the masses, it will need to spread beyond the domain of colourful mavericks.

- Ian Wylie is editor of the Guardian's 'Work' section.

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