Wednesday, March 5, 2008

JFK Forum defines new trends in social innovation…

Kennedy School Reynolds Fellow Illac Diaz created innovative programs in the Philippines to address unemployment and poverty (Photo source:

I was fortunate to attend the JFK Forum at the Harvard Kennedy School this week on trends in social entrepreneurship. This phrase has entered our lexicon along with sustainability as something that everyone wants to be associated with right now, and the ideas are sound and inspiring. A more down to earth way to describe the concept may be social innovation, but the term is not what is important since these are people doing important work to create large-scale change in society.

The panel was titled after the new book The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Are Changing the World, and it featured theorists and leaders from the field. This book was considered so influential, in fact, that it was given to attendees of the World Economic Forum in Davos this year.

The speakers were Leslie Crutchfield, managing director of the Ashoka Global Academy for Social Entrepreneurship and coauthor of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, Pamela Hartigan, managing director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and coauthor of The Power of Unreasonable People, Stacey Childress, senior researcher at Harvard Business School, Vanessa Kirsch, founder of New Profit, Inc., and Christopher Gergen, founding partner of New Mountain Ventures and coauthor of Life Entrepreneurs. Rebecca Onie and Illac Diaz are young leaders in this field who also participated.

Here are some of the important points I took from the presenters:

Stacey Childress: social entrepreneurs seek opportunities to address the root causes of problems, rather than the effects of a problem, and they affiliate with larger movements to change the rules of the game. Rebecca Onie: social entrepreneurs leverage the assets of existing systems to create change, and are often able to find simple, elegant solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Leslie Crutchfield: social entrepreneurs build movements and find points of leverage in all sectors including other non-profits. She also recalled that the founder of Ashoka said rather than teaching a village how to fish, you need to revolutionize the entire fishing industry! Vanessa Kirsch: resources made available by government can be important for success, and too often organizations become focused on sustaining themselves rather than finding ways to create change.

In a highlight of the evening, Reynolds Fellow Illac Diaz described how he was able to address unemployment and poverty in the Philippines through listening and learning from beneficiaries of a Habitat for Humanity program to implement simple and practical solutions that were traditionally overlooked. He emphasized that business plan competitions can connect innovative ideas that often exist locally with necessary sources of capital investment.

In response to the anticipated crisis in non-profit leadership, Christopher Gergen concluded that rather than going out to start new organizations, there is a need to catalyze existing non-profits with these ideas so they can have more of an impact.