Much of the "new philanthropy," it seems to me, inhabits a world like Pandora of Avatar—James Cameron’s new film that is now the biggest blockbuster of all time. Pandora is a place whose inhabitants live in perfect harmony with their environment, with no hint of conflict until those nasty corporate mercenaries start bulldozing their trees. It’s the same with philanthropists who see no contradiction between civil society and the market—between competition and cooperation, self-interest and sacrifice, social impact and the financial bottom line.
Do social entrepreneurs and their ventures fail? You bet! Do philanthropists? Of course! Unfortunately, you probably don’t hear much about either’s flops, fiascos, and total failures. Why? For some pretty simple reasons: social entrepreneurs hesitate to speak publicly for fear of being labeled as “difficult,” while philanthropists have something of a “do no harm” credo to which they, consciously or unconsciously, subscribe.
In fact, there’s a good deal of compelling evidence—beyond default references to Muhammad Yunus and microfinance—that social entrepreneurs are producing results at scale.
Paul McCartney had it right: “Money can’t buy me love.” But for just about everything else in the world, money helps. As for changing the world, it’s downright necessary! And yet, we’ve all encountered those who think societal change can be done on the cheap, that second-class talent is good enough, and that anything but what’s spent on direct program services is wasted.
I’ve always liked the word “intrepid”—a great name for a sailboat (dates me, I know) and apropos for folks the Skoll Foundation has been seeking out and backing for just under a decade, otherwise known as “social entrepreneurs.” So it’s in that spirit that I’ll step into the fray and try to slay some myths about those front-line drivers of social change.
Remember the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron? I’d bet a lot of money that it was started by people who served in the military. “Government innovation” could suffer the same stigma.
When I ran a government agency, I used to remind both staff and stakeholders that “innovation” was both something that government manages ineptly, at best, and also an attribute that we should endeavor to prize highly and reward in our grantees.
American philanthropy and the nonprofit sector it supports are under attack. The attack comes both from outside the boundaries of the sector and from within it.
Hyperbole? I don’t think so.
With recent books from Philanthrocapitalism to Uncharitable receiving prominent play—and their authors being feted by those within and outside the sector—there is real danger that an appreciation of the nonprofit sector’s distinctive identity and purpose will be lost.
The fever for social innovation is sweeping the nation faster than the spread of swine flu. It seems that just about every company has an innovation lab, and the nonprofit sector is not far behind. Even the White House has established an Office of Social Innovation, which hopes to identify the most promising nonprofits to support.
Every year, the quaint seaside town of Camden, Maine is transformed into a festival of ideas. Just before the local inns and restaurants shutter themselves against the long, cold winter, they host a gathering of leading artists, technologists, musicians, authors, scientists, and social innovators—the hundreds of participants who make up the PopTech community. The centerpiece of PopTech is a three-day symposium conducted in the beautifully restored nineteenth-century Camden Opera House.