Social Entrepreneurs Prioritize Changemaking First

by Trabian Shorters

Are Social Entrepreneurs indeed Earth’s next best hope for survival, prosperity, utopia? Sure, why not. Believe what you choose to believe about it. It is just a term. It doesn’t ultimately matter what you call the people who would rather do it than define it.

As someone who has been labeled a social entrepreneur, and then was asked to find social entrepreneurs for Ashoka, and now is asked to coach emergent social entrepreneurs for NYU’s Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship, I am most surprised by two things:

  1. How fast one goes from 20-something aspirant as I was, to mentor material. That time flies much faster than you would imagine.
  2. How calculated, cautious, and afraid the current generation of “changemakers” appears to me.

So maybe, as a mentor, I can earn my chops by having an opinion on that.

The desire to simultaneously “make a difference” and “earn a living” is admirable and good – but you do have to prioritize one over the other. There is no “program” for social change nor a meaningful life. You must already have that desire kindled inside of you. It is the root of courage. For some, the desire to make a difference smolders and for others it burns. The rest are faking. Like any true love, it is impossible to embrace “social change” from a safe distance.

So let’s talk about “risk-management.”

Your willingness to risk normally decreases as you age. That’s why all those people who tell you that they will make their money first and then commit to changing the world are proven wrong 99% of the time. If you are too afraid to risk it now, that usually means that you plan to have far more to lose in the future.

I know that the many people who want to make social entrepreneurship a “field” say that we should have many levels of tolerance – from charismatic prodigy to nonprofit paper shuffler. Fine by me but let’s not confuse wage-making with changemaking.

Social change is NOT a field. It is a calling – a profession in the original meaning of the word. You may be called by your faith, your conscience, your ancestors, or your circumstances but the optimistic belief and integrity of a zealous changemaker (by whatever label) is vital to human progress. That makes it sacred.

I like the way that John Gardner described it.

“[People] of integrity, by their very existence, rekindle the belief that as a people we can live above the level of moral squalor. We need that belief; a cynical community is a corrupt community.”

I often encourage young people to fail big as soon as they possibly can because learning how to get back up is far more useful than learning how to never fall down. You would still be crawling if this were not inherently true. Think how limiting that life would be.

Time flies so how long should you crawl? Are you a changemaker by any name?


One thought on “Social Entrepreneurs Prioritize Changemaking First

  1. reynoldscohort

    So the Reynolds Fellows have been called out, and I am answering the call! I think we’re all just so busy launching our projects, that we don’t have much time left over to have theoretical discussions:)

    So many valuable comments have been made already, that I am indeed “afraid” that I do not have much more of value to add.

    However, I do just want to say that this talk of having to fail over and over, of having to forgo a salary for “YEARS”, of having to miss paychecks to pay our employees, of having to make tough choices, etc., etc., risks dappling in the territory of military-esque badges of honor. The kind of badges of sacrifice that those at the top of conventional non-profits use to keep the young social entrepreneurs in their ranks from moving up (I’m referencing Jo Opot’s great post above). It’s a way of defining and defending the title of being a social entrepreneur, which the spirit of Trabian’s original blog was meant to counter. It it is perhaps counter-productive in that it inhibits more people of ability (rather than pure guts) from entering the field.

    Even mere normal entrepreneurs often experience these dire circumstances. I’m going through it right now, and using student loans to finance my business. We use strategic thinking to decide whether it’s worth acquiring more debt and going deeper, or cutting our losses. Then we use cashflow management, marketing campaigns, supply-chain management, etc., and we rely on the performance of great employees, to help get ourselves out of those situations as quickly as possible.

    There’s a growing world of conscious investors and conscious consumers out there – the ingredients of a great social enterprise exist as they have never before! What is most lacking right now is the doer, the social entrepreneur. And given the beneficial circumstances facing social entrepreneurs right now, I just don’t see the logical reason that we have to skip so many meals and get so many badges of suffering. Maybe it’s not just society’s fault some social entrepreneurs aren’t getting paid; maybe a little extra splash of business/organizational experience is what is needed to forgo unnecessary years of missed paychecks.

    -Joshua Levin (2007 Fellow)

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