Social Entrepreneurs Must Stop Throwing Starfish

Too often we engage in linear, simplistic solutions, when lasting change requires collaborative efforts.

Motivational speakers love the starfish story: A man walking along a shore covered with washed-up, dying starfish notices a boy throwing them back into the ocean, one by one. The man says to the boy that there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish, and that he’ll never make a difference. As the boy throws a starfish back into the ocean, he says, “I just made a difference to that one.”

This story epitomizes the mindset of our social entrepreneur movement—the lone hero making a difference in the life of one person by not falling into the paralysis of cynicism. The power of one.

But the story also represents the great failure of the social entrepreneur movement. Too often we fail to recognize the complex nature of the problems we face. We engage in linear, simplistic solutions, when lasting change requires collaborative efforts.

Action is important, but we also need to ask the bigger, strategic questions to create real solutions. In the starfish story, that would mean asking questions like: “What caused all of these starfish to dry up on the beach? What systems are at work here? Where can we have the greatest impact?”

As it happens, in 2008, thousands of starfish actually did wash up on the shores of Kent, England. Agencies and environmentalists considered weather and the possibility of disease as the cause, but after asking more questions, they found the cause was likely man-made. Dredgers, a tool fisherman use to scrape the sea floor for mussels, were almost certainly to blame, and the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) concluded that the incident was an example of overfishing. The MCS began to lobby the government “to dramatically extend its protection of the seas.” One group member said about the lobby efforts, “It's about protecting the whole ecosystem.”

Real world problems usually result from a broken ecosystem, and solutions most often require some kind of change to the rules. Had the citizens of Kent organized a starfish-throwing campaign, they would have been perpetuating the problem. Without new fishing practices and policy, those same starfish surely would wash ashore again. Worse, the rescuers would have tricked themselves into believing they were actually solving the problem.

The same is true for much of what passes as social entrepreneurism today. Many of us throw a few lucky ones back into the ocean and pat ourselves on the back saying, “Well, it made it difference to that one.” We might even frame our heroics at our annual fundraising banquet, giving the impression that we’re solving the problem.

Starfish throwing, like charity, isn’t a bad thing, but it is not a solution. When we confuse charity and justice, we perpetuate injustice. True world change requires more of its leaders. We must have the courage to work within our complex systems to change the rules.

Foundations that fund nonprofits must take the lead. They must ask potential grantees what root causes, policies, rules, and systems their innovation will engage to bring lasting world change. These simple questions will force the social change agents to find ways to create lasting change—to do more than throw starfish.

Read more stories by Rich Tafel.

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  • BY Douglas Stinson

    ON March 20, 2012 01:28 PM

    I think you nailed it, Rich. A systems view, including trying to predict “unintended consequences”, is critical.

  • BY W. Hunter Roberts

    ON March 20, 2012 01:58 PM

    Love it! Do you know the story of the two social entrepreneurs sittling by the river bank when they see a child floating face down in the river? You might like that story better.

  • BY Thien Nguyen-Trung

    ON March 21, 2012 01:32 AM

    Rich, nice analogy with the starfish! It’s unfortunate that throwing starfish is too much fun to give up so easily!

    The notion of social entrepreneurs as lone rangers also bears an implicit notion between the level competition that we see between various entrepreneurs while they arguably should be COLLABORATING instead.

    The issue remains if social entrepreneurs always have the ultimate OUTCOME in mind or if their egos can occasionally take over and drive them to make strange decisions indeed.

    If interested, I covered this subject recently in an article entitled “Competition vs. Collaboration in Social Entrepreneurship - Can’t We All Be Friends?” (http://t.co/HK4F2AqN)

    Again, thanks for the contribution.


    Thien Nguyen-Trung

  • Jared Stancombe's avatar

    BY Jared Stancombe

    ON March 21, 2012 03:58 PM

    As a junior social entrepreneur, I could not agree more with this article. I work with children in a very impoverished and high-crime area, and I am encouraged to “throw starfish back into the ocean.” But I know that my efforts are undermined by countless variables that the community I serve in perpetuates. It is not enough for my students that I try to set a good example and help them perform well on standardized tests, rather I feel that everyone they have ever known is actively working against me, and that my efforts will only have short-term results; results that may not translate into their adulthood. I do not have the time or resources to perform community outreach and to seek collaborative partnerships with community members and organizations. Social entrepreneurs must work together, in a sort of “hammer and anvil” strategy to mitigate the social problems we are passionate about, or else are efforts could be ultimately in vain. The more we collaborate, the more impact we have.

  • BY Michael Charest

    ON March 21, 2012 11:13 PM

    Way to go Rich.  What I love about you is you are always challenging us…to be better, bolder, think bigger, dig deeper, etc.  This article is yet another inspiring example.  Good for us “starfish throwers,” but we can be so much more.  It requires pausing, thinking, strategizing, planning, etc.  THEN Acting.  Like you say, action is good but with a bit more BRAINWORK, our impact can be so much deeper…THANK YOU for leading the charge!

  • BY Alex Lavidge

    ON March 22, 2012 07:33 PM

    “Social entrepreneurship” has definitely morphed into a concept in the public sphere that conveys a myriad of meanings amongst a lot of different types of people. And as you point out eloquently Mr. Tafel, despite the general sense that it’s about taking action (entrepreneurship) for the greater good (social), the consequences of those actions in the name of the greater good can be unintentionally overlooked despite good intentions and lack of awareness.

    For instance, after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, “the United States government spent $140 million on a food program that benefited U.S. farmers but has been blamed for hurting Haitian farmers.”

    This is just one exemplar of the systemic cognitive dissonance and conflicts of interest that permeates US foreign policy and a variety of humanitarian efforts led by the first world, sometimes in the name of “social entrepreneurship.”

    For instance, I read Teju Cole’s article in the Atlantic published just yesterday about what he is labeling as the “white savior industrial complex.” While I’d substitute “white” with “first world,” while also disclaiming in haste my disdain toward bitter generalities, I felt as though several of his arguments illustrated our first world collective bias quite well. “[This complex] supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening,” he tweeted. Mr. Cole then goes on to critique Jason Russell, narrator of the KONY 2012 film and founder of the Invisible Children movement.

    As sentimental as the KONY 2012 film was, it still neglects the same “rerum cognoscere causas” sentiment to which you’re alluding needed in the social entrepreneurship movement at large that captured the imagination of millions of young Americans and aspiring social entrepreneurs recently. But, the reality is that “what Africa needs more pressingly than Kony’s indictment is more equitable civil society, more robust democracy, and a fairer system of justice,” Cole writes.

    Overlap this level of systems thinking and trans-disciplinary analysis with what books like The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein to Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, and it’s easier to witness before us the psychosis of the cycle to which Mr. Cole is outlining. There seems to be a process where a profit-driven “complex” exploits, forgets, then acts surprised, raises money with emotionally potent sound bytes and memes that may or may not reflect the complexity of the social problem at hand nor an adequate sustainable solution, and then celebrates after some goal is reached. Meanwhile, it’s safe to assume that most people don’t think about the aggregate social externalities when contributing money toward a cause?

    So, starfishes aside, the “elephant in the room” causing a ruckus on the beach, but too heavy to throw back in the ocean, for what good that would do anyway since elephants can’t swim, that continues to go ignored in the greater whole of public dialogue regarding social entrepreneurship is “what is value?”

    There’s always going to be more money made encouraging dependency and debt than self-sufficiency and self-determination. But is this “value,” really? Of course not. Yet, without planned obsolescence and recurring revenue streams, companies can’t compete and grow in a global marketplace. Same goes for cheap labor, the privatization of what used to be liberal democratic governments in theory now corrupt to a larger degree due to lobbying and corporate welfare practices. Or we could explore how war is just as good for economic growth as drug addiction. The examples are endless and only serve to illustrate that global dysfunction and cognitive dissonance has been, and will continue to be, good for any country’s gross domestic product. Until that’s addressed very little can or will change systemically that many would regard to be in the best interest of humanity — although there are, of course, always seeds of hope. I’m a realist with a positive attitude.

    There have been attempts to create new economic frameworks that leave behind in the last century what’s become meaningless terminology in the 21st century like “capitalism” and move forward with a new lexicon of words that describe how we can, in economic terms, measure the things that matter: health, knowledge, peace, happiness, free time, self-sufficiency, collaboration, community, innovation and creativity — all while still both preserving and defining the values of individual liberty, freedom and private property.

    P.R. Sarkar came close with Progressive Utilization Theory (PROUT), but that’s just one economic discipline exploring new possibilities.

    So Mr. Tafel, I’d be interested in your thoughts as well as movements of which you’re aware that are exploring alternative economic systems, ideally utilizing language less than a couple of decades or so old, in conjunction with strategies for implementing over time throughout the global economy, in lieu of waiting for a crisis to happen first thus precipitating the need to think boldly about what lies ahead.

    But until then, I still try to keep my hopes up — and encourage others to do the same.

  • Pratima's avatar

    BY Pratima

    ON March 23, 2012 05:42 AM

    A thought provoking article indeed. I agree with Rich when he says ‘...need to ask the bigger, strategic questions to create real solutions’; however, one certainly can not discount the impact of ‘making a difference to one’. As such, any big initiative begins with a small thought and a big action with a small one. And then, everyone operates at their own level and what could be possible at that level. Ofcourse we can always debate on the ‘possibility’ but to me intention is stronger than actually moving mountains.

    Yes, collaborative effort is necessary to make a big difference… but isn’t the lack of collaboration (or intention) the root cause of most of the world’s problems? the very same problems that social enterpreneurs are trying to address? The lone person has to go alone because he knows he won’t find many a collaborators. Maybe the pat on their own back is their way of self-motivation for they have chosen a difficult path to tread.


    ON March 23, 2012 04:43 PM

    Throwing starfish can also lead to burnout.  My experience has been that the “throwers” often have trouble asking for help or don’t have clear sight on what would help.  Making it natural to ask the “bigger strategic question” is what we have to keep in front of us.  I agree that it has to begin with the Foundations and Funders but it can’t simply be the that the social entrepreneur is following the carrot.  Support and training in how to develop real solutions is a necessary part of the process.

  • The March of Dimes helped eridicate polio in the US; they didn’t simply make paralysis more comfortable. The challenge is getting past the feel good-ness from seeing immediately the fruits of your labor, such as throwing a startfish back into the water. Changing systems takes A LOT longer and is A LOT less glamourous than changing the lives of a handful of people. The sector has to make that switch if it is to have long-term impact. Foundations shouldn’t bear the full responsbilitiy for filtering out starfish solutions. The boards as well as those receiving servces are important voices, who should be asking Has the organization transformed the system so that its work no longer needed?

  • BY kevin jones

    ON March 26, 2012 12:16 PM

    System thinking is in another realm from disaster or civil war relief. I have seen misguided system thinking interupt the flow of relief

  • Taylor Fogle's avatar

    BY Taylor Fogle

    ON April 9, 2012 09:47 AM

    I agree with this train of thought. I believe that this ties into the analogy of the fisherman. If you give a man a fish he can eat for a day; if you teach a man to fish he will eat for a life time. However the more important question is why was he hungry? While this addresses the issue of the bigger problem I believe that there will always be a population that is being washed ashore not because of the major problem, but is struggling with a less common problem. Meaning that not everyone who is being helped by charity suffers from the same problem. If we cannot discover the problem we should do what we can where we can.

  • BY Tamir Novotny

    ON April 13, 2012 07:35 AM

    Believe it or not, I’ve been using the starfish analogy privately for years when explaining to people why I do systems-level work, so to see it written up so well in SSIR blows my mind a little bit.  This is a great piece for explaining the importance of systemic solutions.  Thanks for writing it.

  • This is interesting…. Whilst systemic change is obviously very important, perhaps the system also needs the starfish throwers to act as circuit breakers sometimes?

  • What if we turn the process of gathering the starfish into a self sustaining enterprise whereby we seek economic impact of selling the starfish in our communities and turning those profits into investments for future starfish farming.  Recycling, reusing, renewing = big economic gains for people in need.  They don’t have to be thrown back.

  • BY Mitra Ardron

    ON July 8, 2012 05:52 PM

    Thank you ! About time someone called out the Starfish story.  Throwing Starfish isn’t about saving the starfish, its about making the starfish thrower feel good about themselves.

    Of course there are two ways to look at hte solution
    a) - find the cause
    b) - tackle the problem at the scale of the problem (throw all the starfish back).

    Doing (a) of course in many cases is pointless if they just wash back.

  • BY russell workman

    ON July 8, 2012 06:40 PM

    HI Rich,

    Systemic change is obviously the challenge to be faced, but as in all things,“if it was only that simple”. We live in a world of uncertainty and test markets, which essentially has developed a trust building mechanism which is set at ‘wait and see what happens’. I recently managed a startup Social Enterprise, which was quite successful, and I did challenge the system, even reneged on some clauses within contract agreements, at considerable personal risk, and I believe the gains would not have occurred if I had not done so. Essentially, people and funders are reluctant to provide the space for systemic change because its risky and failure/loss is always a possibility.

    I now, despite the success,  believe that social enterprise is a good but flawed model, because energy is directed to whats wrong with the system, and fixing the problems, but the market has many more examples of how to change a system easily. Simply, innovation is the key. The market interrupters lead everyone forward, with no pushing, no cajoling, no debate. Market interrupters simply capture from strength and the new system evolves around them.

  • BY Steve Wright

    ON July 8, 2012 08:31 PM

    It is hard to disagree that collaboration and changing broken systems and systems thinking are good things (though I agree with Kevin Jones statement above that sometimes “system thinking” sometimes gets in the way of getting shit done.)  However, just telling social entrepreneurs to collaborate is as much an empty platitude as if-I-could-help-just-one-person.  We know who the bad guys are. Our paradigm (social enterprise) is economics.  A very small number of people hold our economy hostage.  Yet, through our strategies and financial machinations, we lionize the system that won them their riches.  While I believe the physics of the market is indeed the platform that can support a better world, it is also clear that capitalism is horribly broken.  Capitalism is a game that is rigged against humanity.  The 1% (the 1% of the 1%) will not allow us to build the world we want.  So, what is collaboration in this context?  Looks an awful lot like revolution, no?

  • BY Steve Doyne

    ON September 1, 2012 10:13 PM

    A child throwing a starfish back into the ocean is not a social entrenpreneur and it’s a poor choice of story for a serious discussion with anyone who is a social entrepreneur, who has walked the walk, seen the results of their actions and analyzed their effectiveness, in the trenches day to day. You do a disservice to everyone by using a simplistic story inappropriately to describe a movement. As for the power of one, no one does anything alone once they have taken the first step of action, having made the decision they have watched something long enough. Life is collaboration, resistance is futile.

  • Lauren Lowe's avatar

    BY Lauren Lowe

    ON November 17, 2012 07:40 AM

    The starfish story that I heard does not simply end with the little boy (or girl) continuing in solitary futility. First, he points out that she has made a difference to some, which is obviously better than none. Secondly, the old man who questions him joins the little boy in throwing starfish into the ocean, and that’s how a movement is born. http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement.html

  • Kevin Starr's avatar

    BY Kevin Starr

    ON January 30, 2014 10:16 AM


    most of the social entrepreneurs i know would never do anything as dumb as throwing starfish (which are probably dead anyway) back into the ocean. and in fact, linear, simple solutions rock when they work.  a smart social entrepreneur would probably a) try to figure out if starfish washing on the beach is a real problem, b) if so, look to find an elegant, scalable solution and c) collaborate and dive into systems only if really necessary.  i think that fits your real-life example better than your fundamental assertion.

    systems thinking is useful - getting involved in them is often a quagmire.  collaboration works when it works, and most of the time it doesn’t.  most of the failures in the sector stem from the fact that execution is a lot harder than coming up with ideas.

    still, it would be fun to have a contest to see who could throw starfish the farthest….

  • Litzi Hartley's avatar

    BY Litzi Hartley

    ON June 3, 2014 09:00 AM

    Whether the problem is starfish washing up on shore, feeding the hungry or heart attack patients in an ER, you first have the immediate, emergent, individual problem and you have systemic causes and factors.  You first deal with the problem at hand and then work outward. In an organization this can mean different people have different focuses or functions. We need first responders to come to a 911 call AND we need systemic efforts for public safety. We need wildlife rescue AND we need to protect the whole ecosystem.

  • I am a current MPH student about to take my first course in social entrepreneurship.  In what I’ve learned from other courses and in my own experience as a lawyer and then in Healthcare Quality and Patient Safety, the problems raised by relying on “the power of one” and narrow-focused initiatives to promote social change are themes I’ve seen before in various settings. In my political strategy course this evening, we discussed coalition building and the lack of collaboration on a national level focused on children’s health issues (unlike the extremely organized and successful AARP/retiree representation). One of the questions that came up was why there’s such fragmentation and lack of cohesion among medical specialties, even those that treat a single population, like children. A point was made about nurses not belonging to a particular coalition and someone asked, “why not?” The simple and sad answer was that nurses—among this particular constituency—were not viewed as on the same level. I said even more simply, it’s ego. In political leadership, medicine, the legal field, some semblance of ego is necessary - as I’ve learned recently, self-awareness and self-confidence in abilities is one of the major keys to leadership success. Nevertheless, when there’s a lack of humility, a failure to recognize areas of weakness or need and ask for help from those with knowledge and skills, to collaborate and consult with others who may have differing viewpoints or strategies but a common goal, and a failure to learn how to communicate (listening and speaking) beyond “levels,” can truly block sustainable, positive social change. Until we all learn how to talk to each other and put aside ego in favor of empathy, I don’t think we can begin to examine the true systemic failures that permeate the healthcare landscape in the policy, social justice, clinical, regulatory and financial arenas. As many have said - collaboration and compromise are key to sustainable change. Having said all of that, I’m taking this course in social entrepreneurship because I need to build more than just the ability to regurgitate academia’s broad explanation of the obstacles to lasting change. Sometimes it’s so disheartening to think about all the mountains that need to be moved to make large-scale change, so throwing a few starfish back in - saving a few - seems better than nothing. I hope we can learn how to do better than better than nothing.

  • BY Karoline B.

    ON January 30, 2016 11:52 AM

    This post resonated with me deeply.  This line in particular was an important reminder that real systemic change is impossible without collaboration:  “We engage in linear, simplistic solutions, when lasting change requires collaborative efforts.”  The public health problems that we face are complex and ever evolving.  Charity has its place in this landscape of complex problems, but it’s not nearly enough. For systems thinkers, those that thrive on analyzing and getting to the bottom of complex problems, the opportunities to dig deep, focus on an issue and start tackling it from an analytical point of view and bring on change, even if incremental, are abundant.  For me it’s about applying the skills and connections that I gained as an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) analyst in the socially responsible investment field to public health.  I left the investment world to gain a better understanding of the root causes of generally poor worker well-being, including our physical, mental and physiological health.  The responsible investment community arose from the basic precept that investors have a voice when it comes to steering the companies in which they invest in a direction that reduces environmental harm and societal ills …. And nowadays, not to simple reduce the bad, but actually, create real net-positive impact.  We can begin addressing worker health from the individual perspective, ensuring workers’ basic needs are met on an individual level, but the problem needs to be addressed from the institutional point of view.  What environment and culture are companies creating, both on the core business and in the supply chain that has led to poor engagement on behalf of workers, for exaple?  And how can we influence that environment and culture to make work more conducive to well-being and health.  To create real change, we need to collaborate with the investment community.  The effort needs to be collaborative and involve all the stakeholders that are impacted – workers’ (because well-being matters), business (because business growth and success matter), and shareholder (because investors care about positive financial, environmental and social returns).  These are all intertwined.  And when all of these stakeholders work together, that’s when real lasting change can happen.

  • As a med student, this article really resonated with me, and its core message applies to any industry. I worked in the emergency room while in college. One of our most frequent fliers were homeless patients, often with complex, medical conditions, co-morbid mental health and addiction issues, and little to no social support—their stay in the ED and possible admission to hospitals nationwide leads to astronomical costs to the healthcare system. The starfish approach is to hand them some change or a sandwich. It’s not addressing the problem of homelessness—one could argue it’s making it worse. The smarter approach—backed by the literature—is to get them homes and more regular access to healthcare outside the ED. The former is easy to do—the latter is A LOT harder and requires collaboration with many players from many different fields. I hope as fellow aspiring or battle-hardened social entrepreneurs, we can always temper our passion for social justice with the wisdom to distinguish it from charity. And I hope we can keep each other accountable to this mission in a way that always builds one another up.

  • You’re right of course but someone should still throw the starfish today. If you don’t save a few starfish when they are in immediate need of saving there may be no starfish left to save by the time you’ve found a permanent solution.
    Just image if it was you that needed saving, I think you would appreciate being saved today while you still lived, a long term solution wouldn’t do you any good at all - thus the closing line: “it made a difference to that one.”

    To borrow a line from Lord Foul’s Bane: “better a small help soon than a large help late”

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