Q & A: David Gergen

The former presidential advisor wants the federal government to champion social entrepreneurs

David Gergen is one of America’s best-known political pundits. And well he should be. Having spent three decades as advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, Gergen knows as much about what goes on inside the Beltway as anyone.

What most people don’t know is that Gergen is also an astute observer of social innovation. From his perch at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (where he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership), Gergen has taken an active role in not just studying social entrepreneurship, but also championing it.

One of the things Gergen has done recently is to encourage social entrepreneurs to become more active in national politics. Last year, he helped launch America Forward, a nonpartisan coalition of about 60 nonprofits (including City Year, Jumpstart, Teach for America, and BUILD) that are attempting to get the federal government more engaged with nonprofits in developing innovative solutions to social problems. America Forward is developing public policy in this area and trying to get presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to adopt the coalition’s ideas.

In this interview with James A. Phills Jr., the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s academic editor, Gergen discusses his views on social innovation, why social entrepreneurs should be more engaged in politics, and how the federal government can work with and even fund social entrepreneurs.

James A. Phills Jr.: You’ve been one of the most prominent supporters of social entrepreneurs. What attracted you to this field?

David Gergen: My first visit to City Year was electrifying. They asked me to come over and speak at a meeting of their directors, and there was so much vitality in the room that I came back and said, “I’m almost ready to give up my day job and go over there and work with them.” It was fun, it was exciting, and they were doing important things. Later on, I met Wendy Kopp [president and founder of Teach for America] and began to understand what Teach for America was doing.

I came to appreciate that there was what can only be called a movement springing up in our midst. I began to pay a lot more attention to them and realize, wow, this can make an enormous difference in the life of the country. Social entrepreneurs, both nonprofit and for-profit, remind me of the Civil Rights movement because they share the same idealism. Although the two movements are very different and are going about things in very different ways, social entrepreneurs could have almost as big an impact on the country over time.

A couple of years ago, you exhorted social entrepreneurs to engage with policymakers and public officials. And clearly since then, the community has embraced that advice. One manifestation of this is the coalition of nonprofits America Forward. Why did you believe it was important to connect social entrepreneurs and public officials?

First, one of the greatest challenges facing social entrepreneurs is getting to scale. About 100 nonprofits are launched every day, according to one report. But the number of nonprofits that grow to have $20 million annual budgets is tiny. So the scale issue hits you right between the eyes. The government, however, has all the money. Anybody who’s spent any time in Washington or in state government recognizes that the level of funding there is vastly higher. If you could unite the energy, ideals, and innovativeness of social entrepreneurs with the resources of government, you would have a powerhouse.

Second, one of the main lessons of my entire career has been that if you want to change things, it’s really important to get the policies of government aligned with the change.

Third, I didn’t want to be too cynical about this, but I said, “You social entrepreneurs have essentially convinced yourselves that you don’t want to be involved with government and you don’t want to be involved in politics, thinking that you’ll be compromised and that it’s ineffectual.” For whatever reason, many social entrepreneurs believe they are filling in the gaps left by a government that’s uncaring or not sufficiently serious about social issues.

So I said, “There are a lot of people on the conservative side who are determined to prevent government from extending [social] services because they want to leave that to private individuals. And whether you like it or not, that conservative movement’s been very successful. If you social entrepreneurs who see yourselves as more progressive leave the arena to the conservatives, they’ll beat you every time on public policy. They’ll let you go spend your time trying to fill in the gaps while they spend their time winning elections. You’ll never get to where you want to be unless you engage in the political arena, too.”

Now to be fair, on some issues such as education, some conservatives are much closer to the social entrepreneurs than people understand. There’s much more support for charter schools, for example, and for other kinds of reforms that I happen to believe in, among Republicans than there is among Democrats.

If the government were to start providing lots of funding for social entrepreneurs, could they absorb that level of investment? Could City Year or Teach for America grow to 10 times their size and still be effective?

That’s an important question. Clearly, some could not absorb a large infusion of money and still be effective. There are others who could grow to that size. But just pouring money into the social entrepreneurship movement is not a good idea. It would need to be done with great care to ensure that these organizations don’t fall on their faces. It takes time to build these organizations. You can’t build an institution overnight. It’s an organic process.

But look at Teach for America. We had 18,000 applications this last year for 2,900 spots. [Gergen sits on Teach for America’s board of directors.] They are the biggest single recruiter on some college campuses. Could we be four times as large in five years? That would be very hard. But could it be larger? Yes, it could. And would we get more bang in education if you took the Teach for America model and built it up? Yes, I think we would.

Is there much support in Washington for the federal government to increase its role in the nonprofit sector?

I think there is a spirit out there to increase the size of our national service commitment. For the first time we have two candidates who support a significant increase in AmeriCorps. So I’m very encouraged about the direction politics is starting to take, but I have to tell you, there is still resistance in Congress. It’s one of the places where you find conservatives saying: “Not so fast. This is not true volunteerism if you pay somebody.” My argument is: “Wait a minute, I thought we had something called an all-volunteer Army? And we are paying them, as we should. How is it different?” Also, a number of companies are now starting to incorporate social ends in their plans, and I have no problem with that. Just the opposite. I think it’s good.

Recent polling data suggest that the underlying principles of social entrepreneurship, if not the term itself, appeal both to conservatives and liberals. Given our partisan political environment, how do you explain the bipartisan appeal of social entrepreneurship? Are liberals and conservatives embracing the same idea or different parts of social entrepreneurship?

They’re embracing somewhat different parts of social entrepreneurship, but they have some of the same underlying principles. One of those principles is that government is often not the best vehicle for solving social problems. The traditional liberal view has been that government is the vehicle of first resort for fixing health care, education, or welfare. Social entrepreneurs, however, have seen government fail at a lot of those issues, because of either omission or commission. So they have come to believe that problems are better tackled through civil society, or alternatively, through the private for-profit sector. Conservatives have long believed that problems are best solved by people outside the governmental sphere.

My argument, and I think social entrepreneurs are now seeing this, is that social entrepreneurs need the government’s help as a partner and a financial supporter. The government shouldn’t take over these programs. Instead, I think we’re looking at new forms of social problem solving in which government enters into partnerships with social entrepreneurial organizations. The government contracts out responsibilities and then expects results.

One intriguing proposal of America Forward is to establish a White House Office of Social Innovation and Results. If President Obama or President McCain asked you to be the director of the new office, what are the first two or three things that you would do to drive social innovation?

It’s extremely important that the President have this on his radar screen as one of the institutions he wishes to build and make it clear that this is one of his domestic priorities. It’s also important to consider tax and other policies at the federal level that could encourage the growth of these organizations.

I don’t think there’s been enough policy work done yet on this issue, and that’s one of the things America Forward is trying to do—figure out what policies might make a difference in advancing these organizations. And yet there is a backlash going on in some state legislatures that are looking at ways to tax nonprofits. That would be a clear setback to this whole effort. In fact, one of the things I cannot understand is conservatives who argue they don’t want the government to take over these issues and want to leave it to the private sector, but then argue, “Let’s tax nonprofits.” At some point you have to ask: “Do you want these problems solved or not? Is there anybody you’d like to see do this, or do you just want to get everybody off the field?”

There is also a great deal of innovation going on within government. Should the new office get involved in that as well?

Innovation in government is also extraordinarily important. If we can establish an Office of Social Innovation and Results it ought to be encouraging innovation within government itself, too. Some years ago, the Ford Foundation started an awards program called Innovations in American Government. I’ve been chair of the selection committee for the last 10 to 12 years. We get about 1,000 applications from federal, state, and local governments. I just spent all day yesterday reviewing the winners.

What I’ve seen through that process is that innovation in government is also extraordinarily important. There are lots of places where this is under way—Smart Start in North Carolina, for example. We’re seeing government use technology in ways that nobody could have imagined some years ago. We’re also seeing that partnerships among various governmental groups, or between government and nonprofits, can be very, very rewarding. That’s why I think that social entrepreneurs ought to be joining with those pushing innovation in government to raise the standards and effectiveness of all of our social institutions. It’s also incredibly important for the White House to build up a network of allies across the country. That would include not only social entrepreneurs, but also the business community, the educational community, and others who could lend themselves to this effort.

Finally, I don’t think we have done enough strong research about what works and what doesn’t work in the social sector. Do we know who should shoulder what responsibility? If we’re going to have the government, the civic sector, and the for-profit sector all involved in social change, who should be doing what? What principles should guide us? How do you establish standards? How do you establish oversight? We haven’t figured these questions out yet. We don’t have a body of knowledge and we haven’t done the empirical work that is required to build up a set of principles.

I was just visiting the Harlem Village Academy about three weeks ago. It is an extraordinarily impressive organization, but we don’t have the data yet. We have anecedotal information to suggest that it is possible to achieve gains in education for children even though they come from very poor families that are broken. We know that, but we don’t know enough about how it works. Is it the size of the classroom? Is it the dedication of the teachers? Is it the quality of the teachers? There seem to be gaps in our understanding.

The definition of social entrepreneurship is a contested one. But many people believe it comprises nonprofits and newly formed organizations. From your experience and observations, do you think that subset of organizations is any better or more effective than the government, the private sector, or large established nonprofits?

One danger that social entrepreneurs need to avoid is to become too pure or elitist in their views of how best to go about solving social problems. There are those who believe that social entrepreneurs should by definition be nonprofit. I don’t share that view. Nancy Barry, who started the nonprofit Women’s World Banking, has formed a for-profit organization to fight poverty in five countries. She is outstanding. Should we somehow think that Nancy Barry is no longer a social entrepreneur? That’s nonsense. The issue is how do we solve problems, not what form the vehicle takes. For Nancy Barry, creating a for-profit is the only way she’s going to get to scale. So I’m a believer that both for-profits and nonprofits are fighting the same good fight.

What about larger, more established nonprofits? What role do they play?

Many people in traditional larger nonprofits have taken offense at the notion that you are a social entrepreneur only if you’re new. A self-righteous quality can creep into the conversations of people who are doing something new. In truth, a lot of people have committed themselves to social change and have done great work. They should all be celebrated and seen as partners in the larger struggle—not as somehow second class.

I don’t think we are by any means at the end of this journey in terms of producing a movement. There are going to be some twists and turns and setbacks along the way. All of us have to remember that the overriding issues are reducing inequity, providing equal opportunity for everyone in our own country, and healing problems in the world. Those goals should transcend differences and method.

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  • Gordon Bloom's avatar

    BY Gordon Bloom

    ON September 4, 2008 02:58 PM

    Very insightful comments by David Gergen and excellent questions by Jim Phills/SIR. One of the best interviews on the subject I have read.
    But for limitations of space, I think Gergen would have also described a pioneering fellowship program in social entrepreneurship which he led the effort to bring to Harvard’s Kennedy School, Education School and School of Public Health in 2005 and which was established at New York University in the following year- funded by a gift from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation. These programs have significantly impacted and accelerated the interest and activity in social entrepreneurship at Harvard and NYU (led by Wagner School and Dean Ellen Schall) and has created a new dialogue on the role of public policy and social entrepreneurship- given the priorities and outlook of the Harvard Kennedy School and NYU Wagner School- and their different perspective from the leading US business schools. What is emerging is a greater effort by universities like Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, NYU, Duke, Yale, Berkeley, Columbia, MIT, Northwestern, Brandeis, Georgetown, BU, Babson, UCLA, Princeton, (apologies to those not mentioned)....to have several of their best graduates schools (business, public policy, education, law, public health, medicine, design, engineering, divinity) and undergraduate divisions collaborate in interdisciplinary global problem solving.  There is great power and promise in this trend of universities being interested in fusing academic brilliance with practical problem solving and in the growing link between innovative public policy/public partnerships and social entrepreneurship.  Gordon Bloom

  • BY Warner Woodworth

    ON September 4, 2008 05:46 PM

    While I have admired much of David Gergen’s career over the years, the last thing social entrepreneurship needs is to become linked to big government. If and when this occurs, it will begin the decline of the movement and the loss of the very excitement and new energy he discusses. In the private sector, most firms that grow to more than $20 million companies begin to lose their creativity as they evolve further into gargantuan, but highly ineffective monoliths. The same is true of many government programs. Transforming social enterprises into giant nonprofits would be the kiss of death for societal innovation. Most of the best NGOs are quite small, nimble. They emerge from the grassroots and become able to have significant impacts. Here at the Marriott School over the past two decades, my students and I have launched some 40-plus innovative projects to improve the world, a number of which became NGOs that do microcredit, literacy, square-foot-gardening, and other interventions globally. The 16 largest raised $24 million in 2007 alone, growing to over 3.1 million poor families. As these organizations expand, we tend to split them off so that they become more self-reliant and sustainable. Thus the lifeblood of creativity flows better and new ideas flourish.
    I believe social entrepreneurship needs the vitality and simplicity of structures that are human scale, that require entrepreneurial mindsets to survive. In doing so, they are able to accelerate their movement and build life-changing strategies for the poor, as well as for the agents of change—the social entrepreneurs themselves. This is not about politics, about liberals vs. conservatives. Social entrepreneurship is about bottom-up change strategies that are experimental, purposefully designed to operate on a human scale, where the spirit of sacrifice and transparency are core, where instead of bureaucracy, love and personal relationships give life to the organization and its outputs. Clearly America needs to revitalize both the government and corporate sectors. But establishing a federal Office of Social Innovation and Results would be akin to George Bush’s fantasies known as No Child Left Behind and the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. In spite of wonderful announcements at their launch, both have tended to evolve as mere rhetoric that produced little impact. If such a gimmick for social entrepreneurship were formed in the next administration, I can almost see federal employees chasing down social innovators to announce: “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you!” Some might jump at the chance for federal funding. But real social entrepreneurs would run in the other direction.
    Our focus is on thinking outside the box. The mantra: “If it ain’t broke, break it.” We are risk takers, not careful plodders within society’s norms. Our work is down in the trenches where we labor in solidarity with the poor. Today the World Bank’s growing interest in social entrepreneurship, along with that of the U.N., and perhaps folks inside the Beltway are dangerous signs of an imminent takeover by the establishment.
    Civil society is best built by radical innovators who don’t fit into formal organizational systems which run from the top down. Rather than fly first class to meetings, they travel coach. Rather than $500-a-night hotel stays, they sleep in the villages and communities of their clients. Rather than be preoccupied with reporting relationships, formal structures, and budgets, they are often wild and crazy innovators who are loose, energetic, unpredictable, and entrepreneurial—the very antithesis of traditional social systems. The truth of the matter is that today’s new social enterprises have arisen precisely because of the incompetence and strangled decision-making cultures of the Big Boys of business and government. Such institutions have reached the point of suffering from a kind of organizational sclerosis—hardened processes, loss of flexibility, and narrow in vision. They tend to traditional routines, operate cautiously, shun responsibility, and have become quite jaded. Inviting such institutions to now join the cause of empowering the poor by fostering social innovation seems quite ludicrous.

  • BY Nathan Cryder

    ON September 5, 2008 08:50 AM

    This is certainly a controversial topic and one about which I have mixed feelings.  It’s interesting that Gergen is such an advocate of involving government in social enterprise when he has been a long-time spokesperson for Ashoka, the organization that first popularized the term “social entrepreneur” and which has always taken a strong stance against government funding.  So what are Ashoka’s reasons for not accepting government funds?  First, government grants rarely come without certain strings attached, and Ashoka believes these strings result in a number of negative consequences grantees.  Stipulations placed on the grantee often lead to non-profits being reactionary to the wishes of government, thus limiting their ability to be proactive to the needs of their beneficiaries.  Studies have also shown that non-profits that rely heavily upon government grants are more prone to mission drift in an attempt to acquiesce the granting agency.  Another problem Ashoka cites is that government funds shift rather capriciously as government priorities change.  And because the political winds shift in 2-, 4-, and 6-year election cycles, grantees often have little or no control to ensure that shifting political priorities match their own—hence, even greater danger of mission drift.

    Not only is this topic controversial in terms of the efficacy of social enterprises, but it’s also likely to become highly controversial in a purely political sense.  Michelle Malkin and other conservatives have already accused the new Obama/Democratic support for social entrepreneurship in their freshly-released party platform of being nothing more than a “political slush fund” for left-leaning organizations aligned with Democrats (http://www.socialenterprisemag.co.uk/sem/news/detail/index.asp?id=622).  Interestingly, their criticisms are reminiscent of the left’s criticism of Bush’s White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives (mentioned in Mr. Woodworth’s post).  For an interesting discussion on this topic under the subject of “Obamanomics:  American Social Enterprise”, check out this Facebook discussion—http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=74425130211&topic=5608

  • BY Trent Larson

    ON September 6, 2008 04:19 PM

    Please help fight against more social intervention by any huge government body!  David is absolutely right that at the US federal level, the government has a ton of money that could do a lot of good if “done with great care”.  However, it’s not right and it’s not effective in the larger picture of our whole society.  I won’t go in to the additional bureaucratic administrative costs and the additional taxation that would result, or the reality that our society is starved for community-based charitable connections and it always works best when freely given (rather than forcefully extracted via taxes), or even the fact that it’s outside the government’s constitutional authority.  Instead, I’ll offer specific examples where government work in this sector is making things more difficult for us, the first being the way it has frozen my own charitable accounts:


    Admittedly, I’m rather angry and frustrated about the whole situation, so hopefully these concrete stories help.  Please help get government out of this sector.

  • David Stoker's avatar

    BY David Stoker

    ON October 14, 2008 09:03 PM

    I thought I would chime in as I have connections with two of the comments—I was a student of Warner’s at the Marriott School and now work at Ashoka which Nathan cites.  My personal thoughts would land somewhere in between.  For all the reasons Nathan cites and for additional reasons of independence for a globally operating institution, Ashoka does not and likely will never take government funding.  The organizations of Ashoka Fellows, on the other hand, often are supported partially by their local governments (although the desire is largely to be freed from the restrictive nature of government funding).  Additionally, a key measurement of success Ashoka tracks among their Fellows is if the Fellow’s work has influenced national policy. 

    This conversation reminded me about the research presented in the book “Forces for Good” which analyzes the key practices of high-impact nonprofits and I remember being struck by one of the first findings which was that “although most these [high-impact organizations] started out as direct service providers, at some point they all realized that if they wanted to create more significant change, they needed to influence the political process.”  If the measurement and goal is impact and scale then I think that the most influential social entrepreneurs find that they cannot ignore government completely.  They leverage government like they do business, individuals and their own nonprofit networks; it is another tool in their arsenal to achieve their overall goals. 

    If social entrepreneurs are not involved in the design and implementation of any sort of government office of Social Innovation then I think it is largely a bad idea.  If such an office can be a mechanism to create an environment in which social entrepreneurs can thrive then I think it could be a major boost to social innovation within the United States.

  • Damian Tapia's avatar

    BY Damian Tapia

    ON February 13, 2009 12:06 PM

    On Scale..and Gov’t

    Perhaps one of the greatest examples came from the political campaign of our new president. Organizing for America, the organization that got him elected and now continues to disseminate his policy goals to his constituents.  It all depends on what you mean by big, If you mean by the area that it affects or the number of clients or the number of personnel (including volunteers) than, yes I believe Social Organizations can (and should) get there and still be innovative. However, If it is through centralized bureaucracy than yes, that stifles innovation. 
    Governments role in Social Innovation would best be served by simply creating a fertile environment for it to thrive, the drive is already there.  Personally, I think the sector would be served through a new legal entity with the benefits of being tax-exempt and reasonable restrictions on personal gain, but with the freedom of action and access to liquidity and investment reserved to LLC for instance. This, can only happen through government. However, I can see why so many of us “Social Entrepreneurs” are wary of cuddling up to government, those that came from the non-profit world in the first place have developed these methods BECAUSE of the dependence on Gov’t. However, I feel the next two great steps in Innovation for the sector in particular, and the economy as a whole, would be the increasing access to liquidity and coordination of/collaboration with all sectors.

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