Social Entrepreneurship in the Age of Atrocities: Changing Our World

Zachary D. Kaufman, Editor
Edward Elgar Publishing Limited
ISBN: 978 1 78100 221 6
A Review by Susan Froetschel

One of the buzzwords of the late 20th and early 21st century is social entrepreneurship but its meaning remains vague. Who is the entrepreneur? Why it is social, yet associated with individual initiative? This volume takes the mystery out of the buzzword and throws light on how individuals gain social awareness and take on tasks to help communities whose suffering gnaws at the world’s conscience.

Most college students debate the policies and poverty that contribute to atrocities, writing papers and signing up for internships, yet only a handful respond to the inner urge to act – impatient to change the world and tackle problems, too impatient to petition governments or run for office:

  • Asylum Access, an organization that promotes refugee rights in Asia, Africa and Latin America, was born soon after Emily Arnold-Fernández traveled to Egypt for an internship and met her first client – a young Liberian just denied refugee status, facing deportation and conscription as a child soldier back home. “Arnold-Fernández was shocked that she, a first-year law student, was the boy’s best hope to get the decision reversed.”

  • After guests praised the bright textile wine coasters at his sister’s wedding, commissioned from artisans in Angola, Matt Mitro realized that “a market existed for African handicrafts that carried social meaning.” He quit his position with a law firm and with his father initiated Indego Africa, a nonprofit that partners with cooperatives of artisans in Rwanda, connecting them with retailers who request custom designs and investing profits back in training.

  • As an undergraduate at Yale University, Zachary Kaufman studied and wrote about human rights atrocities like the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Kaufman heard about efforts to start the country’s first library and a few months after his graduation in 2000 founded American Friends of the Kigali Public Library . The group supported the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga to raise funds and support construction and education as Rwanda has gradually shifted from French to English, in part due to resentment about ethnic identification cards issued by Belgium and arms training from France that aided the genocide. The library opened doors in April 2012.

Kaufman is both social entrepreneur and editor of Social Entrepreneurship in the Age of Atrocities: Changing Our World, a collection of essays about eight programs.

Bill Drayton coined the word “social entrepreneur” and wrote the foreword. “Social entrepreneurs change society by seizing opportunities, improving systems, inventing new approaches, and creating solutions,” explains the founder of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, a support organization for social entrepreneurs.

Modern youth should not be derided as apathetic because they decline to unite around one cause. Rather, they head off to all corners of the globe, discovering their own highly specific causes. “Today’s university students are more connected to the rest of the world than ever before,” explain Seth Green and Leah Maloney of Americans for Informed Democracy, a non-profit that began in a dorm room at University of Oxford, with the aim that informed citizens are more prepared to collaborate.  

Adjusting to change and shepherding it are essential skills in this era of rapid globalization. And the experimentation by so many nonprofits leads to varying levels of success. A few of the groups described in Social Entrepreneurship have influenced national policies; two of the eight quietly closed shop after a few years.

Kaufman’s introduction offers an apt job description: Social entrepreneurs are persuasive leaders who can communicate with staff, donors, government authorities and clients; team players who can form partnerships inside and outside the program, ready to perform any task big or mundane. They must understand the risks and remain passionate, committed and creative. In a troubled global economy, some students feel as though they can’t afford to take time to start an endeavor and others might find that such a trial run – creating their own program, setting the rules – is their only option.  Seed funding is diverse. Some employers, notably law firms, encourage young staff members to devote work hours to worthy causes.  Other nonprofit founders send out a holiday appeal to family and friends, collecting a few hundred dollars to launch. 

Volunteers are the lifeblood for such organizations, and one motivation, often overlooked, is friendship, suggest Scott Grinsell and Andrew Kalber of Orphans Against Aids. The two explain that staff members “enjoy spending time with [one another] and they enjoy fighting for a common cause together as a team. Social relationships are one of the strongest incentives that people have to volunteer large amounts of their time.”  

The most successful ventures often team up with other NGOs in meeting long-term community needs and demand.  For example, the first public library in Rwanda partners with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International for educational programs. Yet other partnerships are less useful, and Kaufman relays the struggle in having to turn away donations of books that were simply not useful for Rwandans. Too often, the intent behind in-kind donations is dumping goods in international markets for tax breaks.  Successful social entrepreneurship requires meticulous planning, flexibility and often the ability to say no.

The book has firm editorial limits, describing only young Westerners driven to address atrocities in other countries. Most of the writers hold back too much in describing their own rich back stories and contributions. The writers are candid about potential pitfalls – ventures driven by ego, focused on narrow issues, prone to promoting dependency, let alone those tainted by waste, misrepresentation or fraud.       

The story of each organization varies, with writers offering varying emphasis on profiles, methods or goals.  Would-be activists may yearn for a specific roadmap and should be prepared to hunt through the collection for nuggets of specific advice. The same set of stories could be reorganized, transformed into a workbook on goal-setting, decision trees, and organizational charts on publicity, fundraising, management and more.   

But Kaufman might resist such an easy guide because the paths leading to social entrepreneurship are endless, including chance or personal whims. The stories of what a few unpaid young adults could accomplish in a few years – sometimes working with global partners online whom they never met in person – do inspire and amaze. US donors are eager to support distant causes organized by confident young friends and family members.  The collection beckons young readers to explore a world of interconnected possibilities.    

The order of the essays is odd – the collection opens and closes with programs that lost their leaders, and the most riveting and visionary stories are sandwiched in between. Of course, the book is as much warning as a celebration of success. Kaufman urges social entrepreneurs to tread carefully, avoiding a headlong rush, overcommitting and burning out, endangering themselves and others, ruining worthy causes and adding damage to the general reputation of NGOs and youthful leadership for years to come.

A tough economy combined with a globe of plenty of atrocities is driving many talented and impatient youth to take action by launching their own non-government organizations and nonprofits.