Hanging on the wall of my bedroom in 5th grade was a poster of Ronald Reagan. He sat confidently on a horse with a big smile and a cowboy hat. It was the symbol of my teenage rebellion—in the 1980s, there was nothing more horrifying to hippie parents like mine than the idea of their kid becoming a Republican.
By high school, with a few small adjustments, I was back to wearing my parents’ values (minus the hippie lifestyle). I started my own business, and later, in college, I applied my entrepreneurial skills to creating positive social outcomes. Six years later, I would start the Taproot Foundation and join all the social entrepreneurship clubs—from Ashoka to Draper Richards Kaplan.
For the first few years, I embraced the hubris of this movement. We were changing the world. We were bringing the effectiveness of business to the nonprofit sector. We were creating a new model for society to address the growing deficiency of government.
But then it hit me—like Reagan, the cowboy on my bedroom wall, we were embracing a destructive, shortsighted myth.
The entrepreneur in our society is the fabled lone ranger who rides into town with his ten-gallon hat, and brings justice and prosperity. The “social entrepreneur” enables Americans to project that story line onto the nonprofit sector. We picture Bill Gates and Henry Ford. We see the vast empires they built and imagine the impact they could have building social ventures, and solving our modern day problems with efficiency, management, and other business buzzwords.
The Skoll Foundation and others have tried to turn social entrepreneurs into rock stars and superheroes. Instead, what we need is to be aware of our real limits and embrace them. We need to be pushed to embrace models that serve those in need and that build rational public decisions and good policy.
Instead, the social entrepreneur is part of the folklore that makes the story of a state-less society seem possible and desirable. It fuels the modern pro-business and anti-government movements. We have helped America believe even more in Ronald Reagan—the cowboy on his horse who saw government as the problem and not the solution.
Social entrepreneurship has led to excellent work, but without an informed and empowered population we will never address the core issues we face as a people. Nonprofits can make only marginal impacts in the fields of education, healthcare, and the environment. Too many good people today don’t even consider jobs in local—or national—government. Worse, they look down on people who do. We need to reverse that and get more people on board to fix our civil society, rather than give up on it. We need our government to stand up and support long-lasting progress. This is the only lever that will really drive and sustain the positive social change we want to see in our nation.
Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.