“The terms ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ are alienating,” explained Heather Holdridge, director of digital strategy at Planned Parenthood, before she went on to describe her organization’s new campaign to drop them. I was listening to her speak on a panel at the Jewish Funders Network conference last month, but my mind quickly went elsewhere.
Eleven years ago, I was the founding board president of Exhale, an organization dedicated to providing emotional support to women and their allies after an abortion, and to removing the stigma around abortion. At the time, Exhale’s founder, Aspen Baker, a social entrepreneur, had a radical viewpoint: The political labels of pro-choice and pro-life got in the way of our mission. She put forward a risky approach: to leave the labels behind and make our home in the grey area of personal abortion experiences.
You can imagine the response we got at the time. Established organizations working in the field of abortion rights were dumbfounded, threatened, confused, and angry. We were told to pick a side or “admit” that we were pro-choice. We faced suspicion and outright hostility. It didn’t matter how we tried to explain it. No one got it yet. It was a novel, daring approach, and Exhale’s board, staff, and volunteers spent the next decade advocating our view.
Exhale can list all the people who have used its services or sought its expertise. It knows how many people have called the after-abortion talkline, accessed their online resources, and trained as volunteer counselors. There are personal anecdotes, new financial supporters, and plenty of media articles, Twitter followers, and Facebook Likes.
But, how can Exhale measure progress on its mission of removing stigma and promoting emotional wellbeing after abortion?
Social entrepreneurs such as Aspen inject new values into communal conversations and can measure their success by taking stock of how perceptions around the issues they support have changed. They can track whether and how their novel, daring messages become mainstream.
I’m the leader of Joshua Venture Group, an organization that supports social entrepreneurs who aim to reinvigorate and expand the Jewish community. We measure our mission of community vitality by examining how the messages of our innovative social entrepreneurs get adopted and promoted by the mainstream Jewish community.
For example, in 2001, Idit Klein founded Keshet to respond to the needs of the LGBT community and advocate for inclusion within Jewish communal institutions. At the time, LGBT Jews were largely hidden, and they were not considered crucial to the overall health and wellbeing of the Jewish community. Rarely did a rabbi or other Jewish community leader speak openly in support of LGBT equality. Hebrew schools and day schools weren’t training their teachers to respond to anti-gay harassment and bullying.
Eleven years later, Idit’s leadership and risk-taking has created more awareness and acceptance of LGBT people within Jewish communities and helped transform the Jewish community into a powerful political force for marriage equality at the ballot box. Jewish schools, youth groups, synagogues and other institutions now embrace LGBT inclusion and standing up to anti-gay bullying as a primary value, and there are new Gay-Straight Alliance clubs at Jewish community high schools. In 2011, BBYO, a national Jewish youth group with an 87-year history, made a public commitment to put an end to bullying due to real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and in 2012, Jewish communities proved themselves effective organizers on statewide campaigns for marriage equality across the country.
Idit’s entrepreneurship brought the needs of LGBT Jews into mainstream concern, and influenced and provided tools to turn Jewish communities into champions for the rights of all LGBT people.
What social entrepreneurs do for social change is unique. They arrive on the scene, bring attention to community needs previously ignored, push the envelope, raise questions, and provide an alternative view and voice. They tackle problems with innovative models and impact large-scale public perceptions. Often, they work in fields dominated by large, established organizations with complicated networks of stakeholders and bureaucratic systems with large budgets. But these established organizations aren’t often nimble, and they struggle to adapt to contemporary needs. So when an organization such as Planned Parenthood or BBYO makes a major change and begins to own progressive messaging and values, it is years in the making.
That’s how a social entrepreneur can measure their impact. Years after their radical idea is rejected by mainstream organizations, the very same organizations will adopt them and promote these ideas as their own. Success for the social entrepreneur happens when their views are no longer feared but embraced.