A couple weeks ago was the SOCAP09 conference attracting social entrepreneurs from all over the world.  Last week was the MOMENTUM conference attracting the leading activists from all over the world. Interestingly there was only minor overlap in the attendees. Is there a divide between these two camps?  The civil society is already fragmented enough. If there is a growing divide between the social entrepreneurship and activist camps then surely the greater good would call for us to bridge the gap.
Sure enough during a Tuesday evening cocktail networking at the Tides Momentum Conference, I oversaw Ellen Friedman (ED of Tides and the host of this conference) at a table with Kevin Jones and Rosa Lee Harden (the co-founders of the SOCAP conference last week among other important endeavors).  It was as if both gang leaders were huddling up in a dark alley to decide the fate of civil society, or so I melodramatically imagined.  I was intrigued and so I interviewed them the next day. 

Friedman mentioned that they did discuss this divide and are keen on beginning a dialogue to start bridging the gap.  In fact, Friedman suggested that one important outcome from the conference might be this very dialogue. She intends to “keep the conversations going.”  I met with Kevin and Rose Lee separately and they confirmed their interest in strengthening the dialogue and start to build bridges. So keep an eye out and start pressuring from your end.  All those with the passion to drive social progress need to find a way to stay united. 

I also asked their opinion on the difference between activism and social entrepreneurship. There was consensus that entrepreneurship is about creating something new while activism is about taking action of any kind so you can indeed be both an activist and a social entrepreneur. Friedman gave Kevin Bales and Willie Smits as examples.  Both changemakers spoke eloquently in the Momentum conference about their work. Bales’ mission is to end slavery over the next 25 years while Smits’ is to curb global warming, save local fauna & flora while simultaneously developing local jobs in Borneo, Indonesia.  Both individuals are creating something new and innovative but are required to influence government and others in positions of power as part of their important work.  As Friedman eloquently put it, “often you need to build a movement and a market.”

Most social entrepreneurs, like me, don’t identify with activism, but, like corporate managers have understood for a long time, we mustn’t overlook the fact that influencing those critical non-market actors in positions of power is often a critical part of our work as well.  One can influence non-market actors in two ways: with votes or with dollars.  Most social entrepreneurs don’t have the deep pockets of the corporate world, so they will have to follow the path blazed by the activists: build political leverage with votes.  On the other hand, activists should also start to recognize that their work will only be enhanced by learning from a new wave of changemakers who want to go beyond the traditional activism born out of the 60s to incorporate principles of the market and best practices of management and private industry to achieve the same goals.  The millennials, particularly in the US, don’t identify as activists but will usually need to incorporate their best practices for the purposes of movement formation and advocacy.

Do you think the activist community and the social entrepreneur community are divided?  Should that divide enough of a concern to be seriously addressed now?

imageLloyd Nimetz founded the online giving market HelpArgentina.org. While pursuing his MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Nimetz has focused on for-profit business models that address social challenges. This summer he will launch a payments platform for India’s bottom billion.