The Role of Social Entrepreneurs in Traditional Non-Profit Organizations

During the last several years we have seen the involvement of social entrepreneurs in the voluntary sector. These are people who come with a wonderful sense of unbounded creativity and energy. They are committed to making a difference in the world. In the Jewish community this has been known as “tikun olam” and it has its roots in the idea that human beings are able to complete the creation of the world. Poetically speaking, this means that God gave us all the natural ability to discover ways of improving our quality of life and making the world a better place to live.

A social entrepreneur is someone who identifies a social issue or social problem and employs an entrepreneurial approach to organize, create, and/or develop a solution to manage a process of social change so there is a broader impact on the society beyond just providing a needed service. In general, social entrepreneurs work independently or with foundations and philanthropists who want to create “real” change. Often they lack the patience to become involved in a traditional voluntary organization and its decision-making processes that are reflected in the myriad of unending committee meetings and tiresome board meetings.

Their aim is to create real responses that have tangible results on emerging and existing social problems. They aim for a broad impact on the society. They do not want to fund another program for children-at-risk or another day center for the active elderly that will respond to specific needs. Instead they want to see a change in the society’s response to an issue that signifies real social change.

Of course the question is asked how can a social entrepreneur have an impact on challenges faced by society? A person who has the ability to influence voluntary organizations through personal contacts with the professional and volunteer leadership or through the resources they bring with them can achieve these ends. They have the potential to shape what the organization does and the way it does it.

The social entrepreneur views the situation from a different perspective than the traditional communal leader and this can be characterized as “thinking out of the box”. The process of identifying an issue(s) and seeking out the best possible way to work toward substantive change often defines the way the social entrepreneur works. There is little or no patience for study, discussion, decision-making, committee process and there is almost a forceful drive to see the change implemented as soon as possible.

Does this then mean that the social entrepreneur works against the traditional non-profit organization? Are there ways to include the social entrepreneur in creative ventures that can be implemented by the organization in its effort to be socially relevant in the community? How does a traditional agency find a place for the social entrepreneur within its structure?

Recognizing the unique contribution the social entrepreneur can make in the community is the first step for the non-profit organization. Once there is a desire to find a way to work together than it is important to create a framework for cooperation that both gives the social entrepreneur the freedom and space to be creative and simultaneously provide accountability within the agency structure. One of the approaches is to conceptualize the social entrepreneur as an “independent contractor” and enable the person to employ a creative approach to problem solving.

Recently, I was approached by a social entrepreneur who was on the verge of completing an agreement with an organization to provide a creative approach to including young adults in the community’s volunteer projects. Although the entrepreneur had been crystal clear about both his access to resources to make the program a reality and his desire to be free from the bureaucratic machinations of the voluntary agency, the petty political interests of some of the players were preventing the implement of the agreement to work together.

I assisted him in thinking through how he could communicate and negotiate with the agency staff and other people with vested interests to reach a compromise. It was important that his autonomy was guaranteed and the non-profit received assurance for the accountability it needed to feel comfortable in working together. Because social entrepreneurs think out of the box it means the solutions they use to move their projects forward have to be conceived “out of the box” also.

The added value the social entrepreneur brings to the table is not only in the resources that have been accessed but also the creative thinking that envisions new ways of reaching out to the community and embodies clarity in the implementation of the programs and services. This is worth a great deal to the non-profit organization that is continually attesting to its relevance in the community. In finding a workable solution for the partnership between the established non-profit and the social entrepreneur both parties can reap the benefits of the relationship. The social entrepreneur is fulfilled with the implementation of his creative programs and the agency strengthens its standing in the community due to the new and meaningful programs striving for real social change. It becomes a win-win situation and can only be reinforced as the two parties collaborate on this and other projects together.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.