Social Entrepreneurs are changing the minds of people all over the world.
In describing the causes of poverty, Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, has often compared a poor person to a bonsai tree. The seed of a bonsai has the potential to grow into a full-size tree, but, planted in a tiny pot, its growth is stunted. To Yunus, a person deprived of education or opportunity is like a bonsai. The constraint isn’t the seed, it’s the pot. Yunis has noted that his “greatest challenge” has been getting this point across: changing mindsets about the poor, about financial institutions, about the nature of capitalism itself, which all stunt the growth of millions. He says “Mindsets play strange tricks on us, we see things the way our minds have instructed our eyes to see.”
So what is the biggest mindset shift social entrepreneurs face?
Convincing people that the world’s toughest problems can be solved. When I tell people that I am working with a team of social entrepreneurs to champion the cause of malnutrition, there is always a look of unbelief in their eyes but that is where I need to help change their mindset.
All over the world, confidence in many social institutions, including government, religion, law, banking, public education, and journalism, has declined. We need to be able to build that confidence and get people believing that change is possible.
Social Entrepreneurs don’t see people for who they are, they see them for who they can be.
They work to shift mindsets about what is possible for individuals. Many have found ways to find potential among individuals who have historically been viewed as incompetent, expendable, or beyond rehabilitation. In India, they are called untouchables or outcasts. They are not allowed to worship at temples, never had educational opportunity and were forced to work that no one would ever do. Social Entrepreneurs are seeing the potential in these outcasts and are bringing real change.
Whether they are prison inmates, illiterate peasants, children, or seventy-year-olds, we undervalue people when we define them by their perceived weaknesses. In the United States, Peace Games trains 5th graders to be “peace builders” and teach younger students how to resolve conflicts in classrooms and the playground.
Social Entrepreneurs look for strengths to build upon not weaknesses to define.
When I was an Early Childhood Educator, it didn’t matter who the child was or if they had a disability, we looked for their strengths and built on that. I believe everyone has potential, we just need to empower them to live to their full potential. In doing so, we expose myths about creativity, resilience, morals of people who are poor, illiterate, drug addicted, incarcerated, or simply outside the age range we think of as productive years.
Social entrepreneurs are dissatisfied with the status quo and are bringing new alternatives to old approaches. For example, for decades, major relief efforts have been focusing on alleviating starvation and hunger, new evidence shows that this strategy is doing little to reduce the growing incidence of malnutrition in third-world countries. If the old strategies are not working, then its time to find some new solutions.
People who see beyond existing frameworks have four qualities that stand out.
- The first is a passionate interest in the simple, even seemingly childish, questions such as: Why can’t we extend loans to villagers?, If the problem isn’t hunger, if it’s nutrition then why can’t we provide nourishment to malnourished children? Why don’t we train the poor for self-sustainability?
- The second is a practice of questioning one’s own, and societies, assumptions, and reflecting on how they play out in organisations: How do beliefs about the homeless influence our expectations of them?
- The third is the persistence of looking and determination to go to the source to gain a solid understanding of the problems at hand: the villagers, the homeless, the poor, the doctors treating the children.
- The fourth is a “we” verses “me” attitude. The heart of social entrepreneurship is a willingness to try out ideas that are helpful to others.
Social entrepreneurs are action researchers: they learn primarily through experimentation, not just relying on theory. Given the way the world is changing, more people are going to have to”fake it, to make it” for large stretches of their careers, responding to shifting needs and opportunities. Success may hinge less on what you know than on how well you learn new things, spot patterns, take initiative, and work with others.
“Social Entrepreneurs have a mind-set that sees the possibilities rather than the problems created by change.”
— J Gregory Dees