Tackling Heropreneurship

Why we need to move from “the social entrepreneur” to social impact.


Step aside, Superman, there’s a new kind of superhero in town. We’ve entered an era of heropreneurship, where reverence for the heroic social entrepreneur has led countless people to pursue a career path that promises opportunities to save the world, gain social status, and earn money, all at the same time. In business schools across North America and Europe, the longest waiting lists—once reserved for investment banking interviews—are now shared by entrepreneurship training courses and social impact events. The coffers of social collateral have shifted, and starting a social business is at the top of the Type A student’s to-do list.

I’ve watched this shift first hand, first as an MBA student, and now through working in a business school and speaking with students at universities around the world. I’ve witnessed a significant increase in the number of students listing their career ambitions as “being a social entrepreneur,” a growing stream of new social entrepreneurship training courses, and increasing numbers of students graduating and jumping straight into launching a social venture. As I’ve watched more and more students focus their ventures on problems they haven’t lived, such as building an app for African farmers when the founding team has neither farmed nor been to Africa, my worries have grown about the way we teach, fund, and celebrate social entrepreneurship. I wondered whether others had the same conflicting feelings as me: excitement about the good intentions, but concern about how they were manifesting. So I decided to do some research.

I conducted more than 40 interviews with educators, funders, and entrepreneurs, and had dozens of conversations with students. Many noted that the term “social entrepreneur,” which began to gain popularity more than 20 years ago, used to refer to people who had first-hand experience with a problem and went on to work on solving it. These people shifted how systems worked through collaborative cross-sector efforts, and though generating income was part of their work, their efforts and influence far outreached the size of their businesses. Many educators and funders share my concern that the focus now is on a distilled and mass-produced version of the promise of the social entrepreneur.

In this “everyone an entrepreneur” era, hack-a-thons, accelerators, business incubators, and social entrepreneurship training courses are around every corner. They mostly focus on training people with the skills they need to start a social business, neglecting the many other skills required to fully understand a problem and fuel social change.

To really change a system, I believe people need a more holistic set of skills, including systems thinking, an understanding of collaboration tools to further collective impact, and lateral leadership skills such as the ability to lead without power and to galvanize movement toward a common goal across a diverse and disjointed solutions ecosystem. They also need a grounded understanding of themselves and their skills, such as how they like to work, which roles in a team best fit their skills, and if/how their risk tolerance fits with the range of social impact career options. Finally, if they plan to take a leadership or strategic role in solving a problem, they need a deep understanding of the reality of that problem.

Unfortunately, all too often, the people who get the funding to try their hand at solving global challenges haven’t lived those problems themselves. This comes from a range of biases. Donors, for example, often fund people they can relate to, and as the Dunning-Krugar effect explains, we often think the problems we know less about are easier to solve. The obsession with becoming “a founder” also arises from a lack of diverse educational funding programs. For example, most universities offer competitions or funding to help students start a venture, but don’t have contests and tools to support them in learning about and then “apprenticing with” the problems they care about.

We—the educators, social entrepreneurship training program designers, social impact funders, and university professors who give money and accolades to students to go out and solve problems before we’ve given them the tools to understand those problems—are largely to blame for this phenomenon. We’re wasting limited resources on shallow solutions to complex problems, and telling our students it’s OK to go out and use someone else’s time and backyard as a learning ground, without first requiring that they earn the right to take leadership on solving a problem they don’t yet understand.

My conversations led me to a number of ideas for how we could work to redirect this plethora of good intention. Here are a few:

  • We need to provide funding for learning, not just solving. A good example of this is the “Apprenticing with a Problem” funding (inspired by Peery Foundation Executive Director Jessamyn Shams-Lau, who first introduced me to the term) that I helped launch at the Skoll Centre at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. Only applicant teams that have lived the problem they are trying to solve or can prove that they have “apprenticed with” it can apply for funds to start-up a venture. But others can now apply for funds to go out and learn more about the issue they care about—to support an internship with a social impact organization in a similar challenge or geography, for instance.

    We also need to create more incentives and tools for students to learn about problems and to identify a range of ways they might contribute to solutions—beyond their business ideas. Our ecosystem mapping competition at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, for example, aims to reward students for their understanding of problems they care about, and I have developed an Impact Gaps Canvas, which others can build on, to help students think through the solutions mapping process.

  • We need to celebrate a range of social impact roles. Many students believe that entrepreneurs are at the top of the impact careers hierarchy, but this isn’t the case. We also need people to join and help grow those start-ups, as well as people to take roles in more traditional businesses, governments, and organizations to help transform them from the inside. Educators need to highlight a range of high-impact career options and role models, spread out the accolades, and help students identify a range of roles where they can help replicate, connect, and redesign broken systems.

    To do this, we launched a Social Impact Careers Conference at Oxford; are planning an Alumni Award; and are bringing in a wider range of role models to inspire our students to apprentice with the problems they care about. For example, the unique journey of people like Avani Patel—who apprenticed with education problems, first as a teacher and later as a school administrator, before taking a role managing philanthropic educational investments—serves to inspire others seeking ways to contribute to the social change.

  • We need to ask collaboration and learning questions. If we want to create solutions to global challenges that are grounded in a deep understanding of those problems and primed to fuel collaboration and collective impact, then we need to fund only the ones that are primed to do that! But many funding applications and accelerator programs ask more questions about business competition than collaboration. What if every social impact funder asked start-up applicants this: “What five organizations working in the same sector, within the same geography, or with the same demographic have you spoken with, and how have you built on the lessons you learned from their successes and failures?” If we encourage and celebrate “building on,” we will hopefully end up with fewer innovations designed in a vacuum, and applicants will feel less pressure to prove they are unique and more pressure to prove they’ve learned about the problem and current solutions landscape before building their business solution.

As with any other systemic problem, tackling heropreneurship will need to be a collective effort. How do you think we can better channel good intentions into collective positive impact?

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  • I’d love to hear your thoughts - feel free to share any ideas, feedback, or counter points!

  • Ashna Afroze's avatar

    BY Ashna Afroze

    ON February 23, 2016 05:16 PM

    Thanks for an article which actually talks about the real deal. I have been hearing about social entrepreneurship for awhile now. People are talking about it like they have found a new trend which is just in fashion without actually realising what are they getting themselves into! I had my doubts. I like to think myself as a simple person. I am a Mom of an 8 months old. I have left my job in a very demanding oil company. I figured one day this is not what i want to become. So all my other options opened up! Once i knew what i dont want, my option were unlimited. I became a mother first. Now i would like to start my own venture. I live in a country where social challenges are enormous. My first problem sarted with what to feed my son? Bieng a millennial mom we tend to get bombarded with information everyday!! Online to family, friends and so on. Everyone is an advisor now days without any real solution.  I live in a country where food adultaration is a growing concern. I cannot even give an apple puree to my son without thinking it can be poison. Thats my first problem! I started looking for solutions and realised why not i grow my own food. I have started a very small project to grow organic food in my own balcony, rooftop. But i am stuck to find a big solution. I know there are huge number of moms in my country who are educated and concerened about what are they feeding their children. What i need is the right channel and tools to figure out a collaborative solution. Now i see solution givers everywhere. Social entrepreneurs coming up with new ways of changing and promising to change social problems like fairy godmothers! They have no idea about the problem. So my doubts grew. Are we putting social heros in the hight pedestal where they may not belong? Reading your article gives me a breather that i am not the only one who thinks social changer may need to live the social problem at first. I will not lie in the begining getting that business degree getting that high salary was the only option i knew. As i became “wiser” i started straightening my priorities. Now i want to become the change by changing   the way we eat and grow food in an urban area. Hoping to get proper guidence on that. I really enjoyed reading your article. This is the only time i will have to read and say thanks to you Its 5:35 am when my son woke me up. It would be great to hear from you more about the lessons learned. Looking forward to it. smile

  • Thanks for the great article. I am an entrepreneurship researcher and educator from Germany with a background in sustainability science. I have exactly the same impression that the need (and joy) to understand a problem (to avoid the famous type 3 errors) is often neglected or downplayed. This is why my lectures always include significant parts of systems thinking and decision making under complexity. And this is also why I always tell my students that participatory approaches are key in social entrepreneurship. In my opinion, you don’t necessarily have to have lived a problem to have bright ideas how to solve it - but you always have to include people who have to constantly check and validate your approach.

  • BY Gerardo Greco

    ON February 24, 2016 01:52 AM

    Thanks for such an inspiring article.

    We’ve been considering similar issues and came to similar conclusions in our challenge: impacting gender issues though and in IT innovation. 85% of coders and 98% of IT funders are men, to which we add that IT culture is 99.9% male.

    What we found in apparently similar efforts around us was:
    - many women a-critically induced to accept models and values largely established by men: individuality, competitiveness, sole monetary motivation, lean and hierarchical structures, etc.;
    - a lack of empathy: typical apps to fight sexual violence would likely be developed by men coders and therefore be irrelevant, since focusing on male-comforting “women-alone-in-the-park-at-night” myth, trashing the inspiration that can come from the awareness that 85% of rapes are perpetrated by an attacker known by the victim;
    - banning of relevant cultural tools: in most “women & IT” practices the cultural wealth of feminism must be checked at the door, revealing a concealed and careful men-maneuvered attitude of “helping” women; therefore apps mapping dangerous urban areas where women should better not go sound helpful, rather than offensive and (again) focusing on limiting women freedom while putting the responsibility on women;
    - women “need help” to get closer to IT, therefore it is outrageous to reverse the pyramid and suggest that women could help IT to grow more relevant and capable of more seriously impacting social issues;
    - lack of a more holistic view on the social impact roles promising an impact on gender issues though IT: startups and hackatons seem the only way in our area, disregarding the real size of the problems. Nancy Fraser hints at this misperception in a similar “social entrepreneurship” context: “Microcredit became the rage at exactly the moment when international financial institutions were pushing “structural adjustment” on the global south — setting conditions on loans that require postcolonial states to liberalize and privatize their economies, to slash social spending, and to abandon macro-level anti-poverty and employment policies. And there is no way whatsoever that microlending can replace those policies. It’s a cruel hoax to suggest otherwise. So here again feminist tropes are invoked to legitimate policies that are deeply harmful to the overwhelming majority of women, as well as to children and men.”(NYT)
    So we opted for non-traditional models and values, involving a wider range of actors, to achieve a measurable and relevant impact on our social challenge.

    Looking forward for the evolution of your precious research.
    Regards, Gerardo.

  • Melinda Marks's avatar

    BY Melinda Marks

    ON February 24, 2016 03:14 AM

    Great early morning read that’s prompted many thoughts. The “heropreneur” framing seems better than the “egopreneur” concept I’ve heard in the past. It is the same cloudy myopia that the “great individual theory” of leadership has brought to business, politics, social history, etc. 

    Everyone wants to start their own nonprofit, their own foundation, their own social enterprise, their own what-not. It’s time to put the ego in check, the hero in line, the visionary to work, and support the already-engaged in their vital needs which are not being met by distracted attention and diverted resources due to the glory-hounds in this sector/arena.

    While individuals can be inspiring for people looking to start efforts, and organizations can be motivating channels for people looking to support and build on great work, we can’t lose sight of all the roles and actors involved, especially the communities that are supposedly the raison d’être for the work.

  • Already sent you another direct message but I wanted to reemphasize that I loved the article. And I loved the honesty in your author bio too. Please be wary about volunteer travel as well, as in many cases, this can cause more harm than good, as cited in this article: https://www.facebook.com/muni.PH/posts/1151922541485676

  • Hi Jen - I too am wary of volunteer travel: the same heropreneur complex relates across the spectrum of social impact roles and is most prevalent in “quick fixes” like volunteer travel. You might be interested in a related SSIR piece we wrote on this topic, Learning Service http://ssir.org/articles/entry/from_service_learning_to_learning_service

  • I suscribe every word of this excellent post of the Stanford Social Innovation Review and encourage reading it to be critical on our own experiences with trying to be the next social impact guru. I would also add that the Heropreneuship believes in “solutions” while real development (what they name solution) is a construction that requires political struggles and commitments over time, so the anti-political discourse of many wannabe social impacters hardly gets this crucial point. Maybe one of the reasons is that Heropreneurs often get bored or discouraged when adding the political variable into the problem and they have limited attention to micro-political arrangements and thus, limited commitment to built real leadership on the issues they care about.

  • BY Bernadette Wright

    ON February 25, 2016 01:44 PM

    I totally agree. The Strategic Knowledge Mapping process we developed is one tool that social entrepreneurs can use to support systems thinking, understanding the big issues that they are tackling, and developing their plans for success. http://meaningfulevidence.com/skm

  • BY Carrie Avery

    ON February 25, 2016 01:57 PM

    Thank you for a realistic and on target article.  The Durfee Foundation funds grassroots efforts in Los Angeles; we look for leadership that springs up from the community.  We are frustrated by the number of applications we receive from well-meaning people who believe that they have the answer to the ills of the inner city, even though they have never lived there nor do they really know the community. 

    We ask applicants to reflect on what they have learned from the work of other organizations, and where they have identified gaps that need to be filled.  I like the way that you phrase a sample application question to get to this issue.  Too often social entrepreneurs believe that their approach is new and unique, when it is only new to them because they haven’t taken the time to learn what else is out there.  This is not to say that outsiders and social entrepreneurs can never be effective, because some are amazingly so.  But I appreciate your fresh look at the dominant narrative.

    I highly recommend this article by Courtney Martin on The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems https://medium.com/the-development-set/the-reductive-seduction-of-other-people-s-problems-3c07b307732d#.onwyzua2c

  • Marieka Easterley's avatar

    BY Marieka Easterley

    ON February 25, 2016 06:16 PM

    Excellent article - many thanks for sharing your in sights on what is a highly relevant problem

  • DT1's avatar

    BY DT1, Jobs Australia

    ON February 25, 2016 08:15 PM

    I thought a social entrepreneur was a community developer with a huge ego - beware founders I say!

  • BY Doris Leung

    ON February 26, 2016 01:10 AM

    So true, love the word “Heropreneurs”, here the same in Asia with the shallow marketing on the heroism of social entrepreneurs but many people do not live with the social problems too much!

  • BY dan parodi

    ON February 26, 2016 05:06 PM

    Spot on. I am a partner with a private equity group that invests in and incubates impact companies in Silicon Valley. Your label fits so perfectly in this environment where the only “one-up” that trumps the child-king entrepreneur is the social entrepreneur who’s out to save the world. In our current context it’s the entrepreneur that is more lauded for the problem he/she *aims* to solve than the actual gains made toward solving the problem.
    Nick Kristof (NYTimes) and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn underscore your point in A Path Appears (http://apathappears.org/) which unpacks a litany of people and orgs that are making great strides in impact—that need help and support. Their well-defended point: we don’t need more organizations doing good things, we need more good people to scale the ones that already exist.

  • Excellent read and spot on. I think you are addressing a critical gap that sadly is on the rise and that needs to be addressed. Working with social entrepreneurs myself in the Euro-Med and MEAN region I have noticed how big the glass door actually is between those that are working on the ground directly with the market and those that have the network, often also passion, but absolutely no direct experience with the market at all. The 2nd group would usually receive funding - while the first - the one that actually is in need is the one ending up without. Looking forward following this conversation!

  • BY Michael Gordon@umich.edu

    ON February 27, 2016 06:40 AM

    Great article. As a professor and director of a center for social impact at the University of Michigan http://socialimpact.umich.edu/, I have seen too much of what you have described. The ideas you suggest make so much sense! Thank you

  • Steve Williams's avatar

    BY Steve Williams

    ON February 29, 2016 02:16 PM

    I love this! After 20 years working in the not for profit sector, and coming from a working class family with mental illness running through my family I totally agree that lived experience is a great starting point to understand social problems and then to design ways to address them. My issue is the amount of consultants in the NFP sector, and the marketization of the social sector over the last 10 years in Australia. I just wrote a blog piece on exactly this last Sunday, so reading your article reaffirmed my views. Thanks! http://wp.me/p3gfsE-jx

  • BY Santiago S

    ON March 1, 2016 01:20 PM

    Hi Daniela, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Very insightful!

    To one of the most important aspects to consider in this discussion is the motivation that informs our good intentions. That is, how are your intentions to help formed, what are the reasons that you want to help, and are they the “right” reasons? Obviously, this would require that we define what the “wrong” and “right” reasons are, and often that requires a value judgement. I don’t want to misrepresent your position, but it sounds like underlying your idea of heropreneurship, is the idea that helping should have limits, or rather, that helping should not erode the power of the person you are trying to help, and should minimize as much as possible the unintended consequences of your help. However, there is a tension here sometimes between respecting someones power and dignity, and improving their well-being, they aren’t always the same. The point that I am trying to make is this: I believe that the first step in thinking about our help, and whether that means a social entrepreneurship, or a collaborative approach, or any other approach, we must define what our role is relative to the people we are trying to help. Do we value the less fortunate’s agency? Or do we focus solely on improving their financial or physical well-being? And the distinction is important because if we choose the former over the latter, we don’t necessarily care what the final financial or physical outcome is, but the other way around and we care less about understanding the poor and their issues and more about improving their basic material and health needs. Do you see this the same way? Do you think that that distinction must be made at the outset of any discussion about help, social entrepreneurship, development, and charity?

    I am curious too if you have ever read any of J.‘s blogs or if you have heard of the Two Dollar Challenge, both of which touch upon similar issues that you raise.

    Thanks again for a great post!- Santi

  • BY Kevin Jones

    ON March 2, 2016 03:34 PM

    While this is obviously true, major international conferenes need to stop giving awards and cash prizes to people they call heroes. It was in the early days, a heroic task. Now it takes a network of partners and allies because the field has momentum.

  • This is a truely inspiring !

  • BY Devin Hibbard

    ON March 3, 2016 12:08 AM

    What a great article! I have been running a poverty eradication project in Uganda - BeadforLife - for over a decade now, and I feel like I learn new things about the work every day. It has taken us most of that time to really refine what we are best at - entrepreneurial training for extremely poor women - and target our efforts where we can have the biggest impact.

    I must admit it drives me crazy now when I go to conferences and meet all of these 22-year-old young men who have “The Answer,” and are able to market themselves well and get hundreds of thousands of dollars thrown at them to MAYBE impact 40 people in some country where they spent a week on spring break.

    The idea of “Apprentice with a Problem” is brilliant, and I hope will get more people to realize the challenges are way more complex and that if there were simple solutions, the problems would have already been solved.

    Can’t wait to read more about your research, and hope to see you at Skoll in April!

  • Charity's avatar

    BY Charity

    ON March 3, 2016 01:12 AM

    I completely agree. I started a 3day program/hackathon for social entrepreneurship in San Diego. It was great, but I do believe the lack of exposure to other areas of the world or understanding many local issues either gave less of a variety of generated ideas. I believe some life experience in these type of are as would have potentially initiated impact for larger scale problems. I am accepted to start my masters program in social entrepreneurship this fall. However, I am currently volunteering in Uganda and living out these experiences as I am seeking to understand the problems I want to solve. I am committed to the projects I am starting here and want to take back these lessons for when I start the school. However, I know what I am doing firsthand is better than a textbook. I encourage everyone to go out, see, experience, understand yourself, understand more about who you are helping and the challenges they face! The masters program I am doing is expensive, and I already have a business background. However school resources and network seem like a great base to launch an enterprise. I agree teaming up is the best way to solve some of these problems. The program I have been setting up here I have linked up with so many other orgs. doing similar things to hopefully have an even bigger impact! At the end of the day, ego should go out the window. It’s the people you are helping that are the really the important part.

  • Baptiste G's avatar

    BY Baptiste G

    ON March 4, 2016 12:48 AM

    Amazing article I will undoubtedly recommend to all my contacts who help Social businesses grow and get funded! Reading the comments is also really inspiring as well
    Thanks everyone

  • BY Daniela Papi-Thornton

    ON March 4, 2016 07:57 AM

    Thanks for all of the wonderful comments. I am glad this conversation starter has resonated with many people, and I hope the conversation continues.

    Ashna – Thanks for sharing about your home vegetable growing. That sounds like a great step: taking on an immediate problem you are facing by learning through experimenting at home. I am sure there are many online forums where you can connect with others growing vegetables in urban areas to learn what has worked for them and to share what you are learning. I need to do some vegetable planting of my own: thanks for the inspiration!

    LauraB – Thanks for commenting – I agree. You don’t need to have lived the problem to solve it, but if you want to take leadership on a long-term solution, then I think you have to really understand a problem. That is where I see the difference: inventions and great ideas can come from anywhere – other sectors, people who know nothing about the issue, etc – and a great leadership team needs to take all of those ideas and combine them into a sustainable model built on a solid understanding of the problem and the current landscape of solutions. From there, they can build upon and connect to other solutions to create long-term change. Thanks for reaching out!

    Gerardo – Thank you so much for sharing your valuable perspective on the gender issues relating to IT work and the quote from Nancy Fraser. I actually had a section of the report about the problem of committing to the wrong metrics of success - focused on micro-finance – which I ended up cutting, but I’ll put it out as a blog perhaps. It will probably resonate with you. Thanks for connecting.

    Melinda – Agreed!  Thanks for adding your thoughts!

    Mariana – I certainly agree that working towards solutions to many of our global challenges does indeed require political shifts, partnerships across all sectors, and long-term thinking: all of which might be overlooked in the initial phases of social start-ups. Thanks for adding your views.

    Bernadette – Thanks for sharing your mapping tool. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Impact Gaps Canvas!

    Carrie – Thanks for sharing Courtney’s article – it does indeed resonate! And thanks for sharing that the Durfee Foundation already seeks out entrepreneurs who are “building upon” the work of others. If more foundations did that, we’d see big shifts!

    Dan – Thanks for the note. The problem is that people like Nick Kristof also promote the heropreneurs, people like Somaly Mam or Greg Mortenson whose stories are compelling but whose impact is not. The media is a big part of this problem…!

    Roxane – I agree – it is hard to watch local people with great ideas get overlooked for the visiting foreign MBA student with the great pitch and sexy slide deck. I know this from having been on the receiving ends of funds I didn’t deserve and from watching many of the pitches from both ends of the spectrum. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Michael – Thanks for the comment!  I’d love to see how we can share knowledge and resources further to continue to improve all of our collective work!

    Steve – Thanks for your note. If you read the whole report on tacklingheropreneurship.com you will have read the part about Baljeet – who speaks to the value of the lived experience. Her report is coming out soon – I am sure it will resonate with you!

    Santi – Thanks for your comments. Indeed, I have heard of the Two Dollar Challenge, though I haven’t done it myself.  Your point is certainly related, and one I agree with: our motivations need to be considered. It’s a huge part of what we talk about in our work on Learning Service (http://www.learningservice.info). With tackling heropreneurship though, I don’t think the issue is that that many solutions are being executed which work but which undermine local values – instead if they are doing the later then they usual can’t achieve successful solutions. The problem is people getting married to their IDEA – to their sexy solution that they pitched in a business plan competition – rather than to the problem itself. When their idea doesn’t work, which might not have been built on a real understand of the problem- heropreneurs move on to another idea for something else – anything that will keep them in the “founder” role, rather than really examining what it would take to solve the problem at hand.

    Kevin – Agreed. 100%. It’s a collective shift we all need to make.

    Devin – Thanks for your note. The problem is, if funding is ONLY available to those who pose solutions, people will keep posing solutions. We need more “apprenticing with a problem” funding that allows people to admit that they don’t yet understand the problem and to allow them a way to access funds to contribute in ways other than as “founder.” Glad it resonated with you!

    Charity – Sometimes what is needed to move solutions forward isn’t a new organization, but connecting and growing the ones that exist, advocating for governments to shift, etc. Thanks for your comments - hopefully your masters program will be valuable!

    Marieka/DT/Doris/Cindy/Baptiste – Thank you as well for the comments and thoughts!  Much appreciated!

  • BY Bernadette Wright

    ON March 4, 2016 11:08 AM

    Daniela, I like the Impact Gaps Canvas - a useful tool for showing how your solution will work to solve the problem that you’re addressing. I can also see the topics in the canvas being turned into a more detailed analysis if you wanted to look at the topic in greater depth.

  • BY Jess Blokland

    ON March 9, 2016 04:27 AM

    Dear Daniela,

    this is a great article, and I can only encourage people 10 years younger than myself to go out and get their hands dirty, figure out the commonalites and diversity of how humans tick, and understand the up and downsides of diverse forms of social organization - before trying to start their own venture as a full time career.  I started my social enterprise at 32 and have some strange comfort in knowing the reality out there is tough.  I can’t change the world alone or even with one idea, and that knoweldge helps me focus on what I realistically can contribute with my social business.  For me, experience came out of Peace Corps work, teaching, mentoring refugees day in and day out for years.  Tough stuff which teaches you there are limits and your idea better at least recognize them or it will fail.

  • Alan Botens's avatar

    BY Alan Botens

    ON March 9, 2016 07:34 AM

    My comment when this post was shared on a FB: “I’m glad she offered suggestions for another iteration of social entrepreneurship, but I think we should be more careful of our critiques of existing social good efforts.  This reminded me of “Crisis Caravan” - a devastating critique of aid & development organizations that surely put many people off the idea of either joining or donating.

    I’m sure that smart, eager, even spotlight-seeking social entrepreneurs have met with both successes and failures, just as start-ups in the more conventionally commercial world have.

    Once again, I find myself returning to formula of diversity and inclusiveness.  The world of social-purpose initiatives is big enough to include a diversity of approaches, and we can add an approach of funding longer training and apprenticeship programs (like Acumen does), without dismantling the support of overly-ambitious do-gooders who want to get stuff done now, who will sometimes succeed in launching an innovative and impactful project or organization, and whose “failures” can be charged to experimentation - to learning experiences.”

  • Thanks, Alan!  The spotlight seeking isn’t the core of the problem - I agree with you that spotlight seeking entrepreneurs who are doing great work or sharing/learning from their efforts are not the necessarily having a worse impact just because they are seeking or getting the spotlight.  My concern is more about the system that supports them - in other words, if funders want to use their limited resources to fund high-impact organizations, then choosing entrepreneurs who really understand the problems they are seeking to solve is a key to that success. The other funding problem is that, right now, most educational institutions and social impact funders ONLY provide funding to new ideas for solutions - rather than funding to provide apprenticeships or learning opportunities. This means that, if you are someone who cares about a problem and wants to get involved in ameliorating it, you must pitch to found a new venture in order to access most funding pools. If we limited our start-up funding to only those people who have already taken the time to understand the problem deeply, while also creating other funding pools for those who want to learn about or apprentice with problems, we’ll set the later up for success as well. Their measure of success will no longer be “making my venture succeed” but instead will be “learning about the problem, testing my assumptions, and finding a way to add value” which may or may not be linked to launching a start-up venture.  Hope that resonates!?

  • BY Jess Blokland

    ON March 10, 2016 01:48 AM

    I love the way this discussion is evolving, each comment is really thought provoking for me.  Re funding learning, I see this as kind of re-inventing the wheel in cases where the person has no experience with the problem.  There are already many opportunities to learn about a problem on the ground via volunteering, internships, entry-level jobs, etc.  Only people who can truly proved they are not able to fund these opportunities themselves should receive funding from #socent pots.    Of course, there are some excellent individuals out there who are not able to access or fund these first experiences themselves and finding and supporting them is worthwhile. 

    On the other hand, I think it makes more sense to fund the acquisition of partial knowledge areas for experts/experienced individuals working on interdisciplinary problems and approaches.  They may be missing experience in one aspect of their idea, and funding them to gain essential insights on areas outside their expertise may be worthwhile.  This fits in well with the design-thinking approach generally.  At the same time, looking at the startup sector, there is a reason that teams are preferred to single entrepreneurs.  Complex problems require multiple deep expertises which are rarely united in single individuals.  In that sense it may also be more worthwhile to invest in methods to bring existing complementary skills together that in filling knowledge/experience gaps.  And to make sure these teams are successful in giving each other understandable and actionable insights from each members’ deep expertise area.  As someone coming from the social sciences and having worked on interdisciplinary teams, it is a real challenge to integrate diverse areas of expertise in a way that brings additional value. 

  • Alan Botens's avatar

    BY Alan Botens

    ON March 10, 2016 04:21 AM

    This reminds me of so many conversations we’ve had on the Facebook of the Social Learning for Social Impact GROOC (Group Open Online Course).

    Your question seems to be, “How can philanthropic foundations allocate scarce funding to have the greatest impact?”

    Your answer seems to be, “Pivot from supporting those who have come to pitch an app or project or organization they’ve already designed, to supporting those who are seeking the deeper experience and knowledge they’ll need to design better innovations.”

    You are working within a paradigm of scarcity when you write, “... limit funding of ...”

    I think a better approach is to focus on abundance.  If you have to reject far more applicants than you fund, and if information has become a new Factor of Production, and digital technologies have nearly eliminated the marginal cost of distributing information, and if, further, as you say, innovation in a complex world is more likely to come from teams than from individuals, then one solution would be for philanthropies to support hubs that offer information and guidance in team formation, project design, prototyping, resourcing (beyond philanthropies and gov’t grants, there is crowdfunding), launching, scaling, assessing and iterating.  Hubs of this nature are proliferating, but they are not scaling because they are in early stages of working out their short-comings.

    But here’s the crux of my problem with your approach: we should not be focusing on excluding certain categories of people who are trying to do good.  We should be focused in including more categories. 



  • Alan Botens's avatar

    BY Alan Botens

    ON March 10, 2016 05:18 AM

    Hi again, Daniela.

    I’m trying to see this exchange more as a conversation, rather than a spat.

    From the linked thread on our GROOC FB that began with a share of a NY Times Magazine article,
    “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”

    “It’s beyond the resources of a MOOC or GROOC, but for someone like Google, I can imagine, in the interest of productivity, their hiring and training one facilitator for every five or six engineers or programmers, and having a facilitator on each team, to guide the process of establishing the “safe,” collaborative group culture and dealing with difficult personalities.”

    For social-purpose hubs who are supporting the formation and success of many social-purpose teams, the difficulty of scheduling team meetings, even when most members live in the same city, is leading to increased use of online video conferencing.  This is especially important when a team’s members are spread across the globe.  One innovation in hub design would be to make sure each team already has, or is able to recruit, at least one or two members who have, as you indicate, lived the issue being addressed.


  • BY Sophie Paine

    ON March 10, 2016 09:01 AM

    Great article, Daniela. I fully relate to your article as many readers have. Having worked with all kinds of organisations in Cambodia (including Pepi smile), I am always skeptical on all the new organisations led by one or two people starting up from fresh before even talking to people on the ground. It sounds like many of us have experienced this. Or people volunteering to help in a “developing” country but without any deep understanding of the communities they will work with for a few days or weeks - what impact does it have apart from the carbon print from the plane and financially sustaining air companies and the local hotel and transportation businesses? Good intentions cannot replace professionalism and where our education system really fails: developing listeners and encouraging humility (and both go hand in hand). From early on, kids are taught to speak, get individual grades, and are encouraged to feel proud… to me, these are the seeds that will grow into “heropreneurship”. Imagine if there were listening assignments, collective grades at class level and educational progress was not praised by “I am so proud of you, or you can be proud of yourself”... but by nudge to learn more, or more in depth?
    Another big dream to tackle this heropreneurship culture which, as you point out, contributes to a waste of funds and talent, and does not solve the issues, or may even worsen them sometimes, is to open up more doors and bridges between a world too often seen through the “they” and “we” (or “I” for the heropreneurship) prism. What about funding scholarships so that slum kids from India go to Oxford and learn? What about funding a Kenyan organisation helping street children start a programme in the US?
    The heropreneurship, it seems to me but I may be wrong, is just the acute and visible part of a deeper asymmetry in how we think of poverty and world’s issues – “we” have solutions that “they” don’t… unless we don’t open up our minds to all the local initiatives –and the need for global ones on issues like corruption – “we all” have a problem.

  • BY Daniela Papi-Thornton

    ON March 15, 2016 03:59 AM

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Jess- I agree, there are LOTS of ways to fund cross-sector education, to ensure that those with the lived experience are included in more aspects of social change work, and to support apprenticing with a problem. I don’t think there is any one right way to do this – it will depend on the problem, the funders, and the needs. The key first step, I think, is starting the conversation and realizing that a whole range of educational and funding opportunities are needed to fuel more collaborative social change.

    Alan – The question you listed is just one piece of the report. I don’t think this is something funders only are responsible for – this is about shifting out how we educate, incubate, inspire, and fund social change. If you get a chance to read the whole report at tacklingheropreneurship.com it might highlight more of the overlaps. If you do so, you’ll see that I am not advocating for “excluding certain categories of people who are trying to do good.” In fact, I’m advocating for the opposite! If we make it seem like entrepreneurs are the ONLY ones who drive value in the social impact sandbox, we are in fact then excluding all of the other people who want to contribute but would do so in other ways. Hopefully the report helps clarify that further!

    Sophie – Thanks for your thoughts as well. There are indeed some very cool organizations that bring students from emerging markets into “developed” countries (or should we say, “slow growth countries”!) – but not enough. Reverse voluntourism. I agree that the problems are indeed deeper than “heropreneurship” and do indeed stem from a belief that “we” need to, or have a responsibility to, help “them,” when in fact,  we – whomever that “we” is – have to earn the right to impose our benevolence on others.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  • Steven Byers's avatar

    BY Steven Byers, Helping Human Systems

    ON March 17, 2016 09:41 AM

    I appreciate this article, particularly the emphasis on systems thinking and related skills/mindsets. I’ll share it with a nonprofit where I serve on the board (GoodGrub.org - anti-racism and anti-oppression through agriculture!) and with my systems thinking class at St. Mary’s College of California. Thank you.

  • BY Joan Vinyets Rejón

    ON March 22, 2016 01:20 AM

    I appreciate this article, specially because shows the importance of understanding the Human Factors and the context. Thank you

  • BY Eleni Pallas

    ON March 29, 2016 02:48 PM

    I invite the author and her readers to go deeper.

    The problems we face in social impact achievement and investment are tied to the ways we think/assume and feel. These drive our behavior and the results we create. Why does a social entrepreneur want to start a project? What does s/he hope to feel and achieve? What happens if s/he works for 50 years and doesn’t achieve the desired impact, would s/he still pursue the project? What fuels his/her passion — willpower? refined anger? deep-seated values? — they each create different results…

    What if b-schools taught entrepreneurs to feel good about themselves without any need for external validation — and if entrepreneurs initiated projects from a feeling of inherent value vs a need to prove their worth? 

    Without diving into entrepreneurs’ inner worlds, social impact investors and b-schools are left patching symptoms with band-aids without getting to systemic transformation.

  • BY Daniela Papi-Thornton

    ON March 29, 2016 03:23 PM

    Indeed! I agree, Eleni. That’s what our Learning Service book starts out with (understanding yourself and your motivations). This work and interest in social impact is indeed largely motivated by people who want to feel good. That said, some of the people won’t mind, but many would no longer feel good if they found that their efforts were causing harm… Which it often does… And they often don’t find out about it. Hence, the hedonistic motive to feel good isn’t a bad thing if you align it with DOING good making you feel good. Hence we need to do a better job teaching people how to do good, rather than just how to start a social business - as currently we’re missing the mark!

    Regarding external validation: sometimes it’s the opposite. People feel good about themselves WITHOUT the external validation - in other words, they are proud of having started or having tried something with the intention to do good without taking the time or using to tools to see if it has indeed done so. In other words, in some cases I agree with you: it would be better for some people to not feel that they have to “prove” their value through being a “founder” but in other cases in the Heropreneurship concept, the missing link can be the real self-reflection and follow up to understand your impact and shift as needed.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Eleni!

  • BY Radmila van Os

    ON May 30, 2016 04:17 AM

    Hi Daniela,
    I came across your article a bit late, but nevertheless, I want to leave you a comment, as it is an excellent and to-the-point source for me and my organization as it addresses issues I work hard to bring to light!
    I’ve been a witness of too many competitions where funding does go to individuals or groups tackling social challenges mainly through technology. While it looks ‘sexy’ and ‘cool’ - the terms mostly used by the creators, if we judge by the failure rate of these start-ups, they are missing something for sure. I’m 40 years old, but I can’t simply see how the ‘solution ‘can happen without the learning part. And this is exactly why my organization focuses primarily on the ‘learning part’. My idea is that we invite people to understand what is their personal impact they want to create within an idea or a project, then to try to understand the impact that the’ beneficiaries’ are currently making and lastly to collaborate with them to try to set the impact on a more sustainable path. The process includes the learning part and a volunteering experience, so that the potential ‘founder’ can actually live the effects of his/her own impact within the idea of a solution (note that it can only be an idea at that stage, not a final solution) and only after the whole experience (never shorter than 4 weeks) – a potential pilot might emerge. Hence, I loved your article for highlighting that we all need a more systematic and collaborative approach to social impact! We can only work all togehter to buid the case for the ‘apprentice with a problem approach’ so it also gains momentum with the funders.
    Big thanks!

  • BY Daniela Papi-Thornton

    ON May 30, 2016 04:43 AM

    Thanks, Radmila. Glad to hear the article resonated!  We are about to have the final of our first “Global Challenge” focused on helping people understand problems before they decide how or where they might add value in working to solve them. http://www.oxfordglobalchallenge.com/  It has been great to see the entries along the way!  Glad to hear you are helping people “apprentice” with problems - we certainly need more of that!  Many thanks for reaching out!

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