How to Change the World

John Elkington & Pamela Hartigan

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THE POWER OF UNREASONABLE PEOPLE:
How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World

John Elkington & Pamela Hartigan
272 pages (Harvard Business School Press, 2008)

Pamela Hartigan and John Elkington have written an essential book for anyone interested in understanding the phenomenon of social entrepreneurship. Their comprehensive and thoughtful book offers a great single source for understanding the amazing variety of social entrepreneurs throughout the world. With the burgeoning of interest among scholars, students, foundations, and policymakers, The Power of Unreasonable People should join the short list of required reading on social entrepreneurship.

Who are social entrepreneurs? What distinguishes them from other agents of change in the world? Why does what they do matter? Is it possible to scale the impact of their work? The authors answer these critical questions and lay the groundwork for others left dangling.

Thanks to their many years spent as leaders and eyewitnesses in the field of social change, Hartigan and Elkington have a wealth of personal relationships from which to draw for this well-researched book. They present insights, information, and analysis gathered from both the literature and direct conversations with an extraordinarily broad array of social entrepreneurs.

The Power of Unreasonable People complements the other seminal book on social entrepreneurs, David Bornstein’s How to Change the World. But whereas Bornstein focuses on a handful of entrepreneurs and dives deeply into their stories, Hartigan and Elkington illuminate the breadth of amazing work being done by the more than 50 social entrepreneurs they feature.

They join Bornstein and J. Gregory Dees, the field’s other leading observer, in focusing on the social entrepreneur’s personal traits. Their primary thesis is that without these individuals’ tenacity, commitment, and “against all odds” approach, their innovations would never have seen the light of day. They cite 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who, at the first Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship gathering in 2001, identified himself as “crazy” for doing what he did.

The Power of Unreasonable People offers a typology that illuminates what the broad range of social entrepreneurs share and don’t share. The authors distinguish three categories of social entrepreneurs: those primarily dependent on philanthropic or government support; those fundamentally supported by market revenues (but who differ from normal for-profit leaders in their self-imposed trade-off of profit maximization for social value); and those working in hybrid organizations that blend market capital and social sources of capital. The authors profess themselves agnostic when it comes to which approach is best – although a hint of preference for the market approach comes across to this reader. Classifying, identifying, and distinguishing between these categories can play an important role in furthering the work of social entrepreneurs: It can remedy their current problem of spending so much time redefining the meaning of terms and arguing about whether each innovation is on or off the social enterprise bus.

The book generally succeeds in walking a fine line between objectivity and celebration of social entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, social entrepreneurs’ inspiring, against-all-odds work leads the authors to take an occasional dip into hagiography, which they temper by often reminding us of where things have failed, or at least not gone to the scale they should have. But since this is a book about unreasonable people trying to do remarkable things – written by people who have devoted their lives to supporting the same ends – cheerleading and a sense of hopefulness serve as useful subtext.

Apart from the success of microfinance, achieving significant scale remains a daunting challenge for social entrepreneurs, particularly in the United States. The book discusses the problem, but not surprisingly, offers no simple solutions to this critical challenge. Efforts are now under way to achieve greater scaling, which will truly transform social entrepreneurship from an important but small force for change into one that tackles great social challenges such as poverty, inequity, and environmental degradation. Organizations such as New Profit Inc., the Skoll Foundation, and my own, Rubicon, through our National Social Innovations project, are committed to finding a path to profoundly greater-scaled organizations.

Let us all look forward to the Hartigan and Elkington sequel, which will celebrate the next generation of success that now only the unreasonable dare imagine.


Rick Aubry has been president of Rubicon Programs since 1986. He teaches social entrepreneurship and innovation as a member of the Stanford Graduate School of Business faculty.

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