Ash Center: Sparking Social Change

September 16, 2011
Ash Center: Sparking Social Change
Ash Center: Sparking Social Change

Mark Moore Researches Practices for Improving Social Entrepreneurship
By Jessica Engelman 

What is social innovation? Social entrepreneurship? Social change? They might be buzz words, but at Harvard University and beyond, scholars and researchers are increasingly taking these questions quite seriously.

To the Ash Center’s Professor Mark Moore, in a world of social ills and inequalities, the potential value of social entrepreneurship is too great to leave on the table. Perhaps a more important question then is how to improve the practice of social entrepreneurship and increase the number of innovators who are tackling society’s toughest problems?

Moore readily acknowledges that one of the first challenges in this endeavor is trying to define and explain social entrepreneurship, which is further complicated because many limit it to the private and nonprofit sectors. Still others argue that even the business world can harbor social entrepreneurs. And, most tend to exclude those engaged in social or political action. However, one point of agreement is that social entrepreneurs advance systemic change, and do not just offer symptomatic relief.

Who are Social Entrepreneurs?
Moore says that the desire to engage in efforts that are transformative and self-sustaining perhaps most clearly separates the social entrepreneur from other do-gooders. For example, when ophthalmologist Dr. Venkataswamy saw so many of his fellow Indian compatriots go blind due to cataracts because of a lack of available treatment, he started a for-profit eye hospital to treat those who could pay. He then used the profits to fund another hospital for those who could not pay. In this way, he created a sustainable model to fill a huge gap in medical care and benefit social welfare.

Social entrepreneurs often look outside the most common sectors involved in social service delivery—the state and nonprofits—for solutions to social problems. Interestingly, both liberals and conservatives have become fans of this approach, although for different reasons. Liberals advocate for the idea of community politics and locally grown solutions, while conservatives advocate for less dependence on the government when providing for social welfare.

Moore also describes social innovators as opportunistic, redeploying discarded resources in new ways, and as bridge builders. They create novel services and products “often by bringing together approaches which have traditionally been kept separate.”

What is Social Entrepreneurship?
At the organizational level, most envision social enterprises as a certain subset of regular commercial enterprises. Moore argues however that all commercial enterprises might be viewed as social enterprises. Consider that the workers agree that their pay benefits them more than not working or working elsewhere, products and services are valued more than the price required to pay for them by consumers, and owners of companies benefit through financial compensation. In this light, there is public value to be realized when the government ensures a political and bureaucratic environment that promotes rather than discourages or halts economic prosperity.

One key defining characteristic of this subset could be those enterprises that connect previously marginalized populations to the mainstream economy in a way that benefits them materially.

How do you decide what problem to work on? In the civic sphere, an individual decides to act directly on a problem to be solved or a solution to be tried. They rely on their own resources and philanthropists for funds, until, hopefully, they outgrow their supporters and need marketplace mechanisms (selling services or products) or government tax dollars to grow to scale. So, although they are initially independent, they will need to earn legitimacy to garner support from nonprofit, for-profit, and government sectors for sustainable funding and passage or modification of supporting regulations.

But from a research perspective, social entrepreneurship is not a well-developed or mature system. The challenge Moore has undertaken is to look beyond the individual characteristics of the entrepreneur. In order to be truly transformative, Moore argues, an innovation must influence the broader system in which it operates. And how innovators interact with and exert influence upon the landscapes or ecosystems in which they operate is not well understood.

Figuring out the best role for government, particularly in a liberal democratic society, is a primary concern for Moore. Social entrepreneurs in theory do not need government’s permission; to many, this is one of their most attractive features. Yet in addition to responding to outside ideas from social entrepreneurs, government could also help to evaluate their methods and reorganize its procurement systems to more easily shift money. As is, government has a hard time stopping to fund existing providers in order to fund new ones (for a number of reasons, including the strong political influence existing providers exert on funding decisions).

What Can the Academy Do?
Moore believes that part of the solution to understanding these relationships and translating those discoveries into action is in reaching across disciplines and sectors, work that he is well suited for. In addition to the Ash Center, Moore holds multiple posts and affiliations across the university including Hauser Professor of Nonprofit Organizations at the John F. Kennedy School of Government; Herbert A. Simon Professor in Education Management, and Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Education; and visiting professor at the Business School. In addition, he co-teaches a class on “Sparking Social Change” at the Kennedy School.

In fact, Moore has been convening faculty from across the university who have a shared interest in social change from three perspectives: real-world practice, knowledge building, and instruction. In other words, these faculty members are not only asking, how do we as a university best inspire, teach, and support students to make the world a better place. They also have a passion for social change in their personal or professional lives and are making well-known contributions to the discourse in their field of study.

If any entrepreneur can make this ambitious feat happen, we like to think Moore can.