Q & A with Sally Osberg & Roger Martin, co-authors of Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works.
Getting Beyond Better hits stores today! Jeff Kehoe, Senior Editor at Harvard Business Review Press, spoke with Sally and Roger about the book during the 2015 Skoll World Forum.
Q: Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen says that every product has a job to do. If we think of your book as a kind of product, what’s the job that it’s doing?
SALLY: We write about the job we needed to do at the Skoll Foundation, after our first couple years of channeling Jeff Skoll’s vision—and, really, DNA—around that special kind of entrepreneur who brings a disruptive impact to solving the world’s most pressing problems.
We needed a definition and to apply some criteria so we could choose among the hundreds of wonderful proposals that came our way. With the help of Roger Martin—one of our wonderful board directors and a genius when it comes to strategy, who was no way going to let us [think] in a non-rigorous way about this—we actually started to clarify what social entrepreneurship is.
We came to the realization that it’s about equilibrium change. Social entrepreneurs attack systems and equilibria in society that are stuck, held in place by a set of forces, and that desperately need to change. These equilibria lead to the marginalization, suffering, or a large-scale disadvantage of some segment or element of society.
Once we got that clarity, we could really look at the social entrepreneurs. We could start to understand those who were trying to do good in the world, and those who were on an order-of-magnitude journey to make that impact in the world. That’s where the definition [and framework] arose.
ROGER: Part of the book’s job is to provide would-be social entrepreneurs some ideas for how they can create equilibrium change. We share the mechanisms and models that we’ve seen out there that work, because now we have the real benefit of working with 91 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship-winning organizations and over 100 social entrepreneurs.
Also, we’d love to see more funders enter the field and support it. It becomes easier for funders to say: ‘I will support this thing called social entrepreneurship’ if they can understand what it is, identify social entrepreneurs, and have a sense of what models work.
Q: The original articulation of your book was in a 2007 article you coauthored in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: Social Entrepreneurship: the Case for Definition. How has your thinking evolved since that very impactful piece?
ROGER: We’ve been working and learning along the way. In the 2007 article we established the notion that it’s about creating the equilibrium change, and said, it’s great if they can. What’s evolved is we’ve tried to look at what mechanisms they use to drive change, and we made this distinction between social entrepreneurship and social advocacy.
Now we have a view that those two things are often complements of one another. Equilibrium change can be driven by a social entrepreneur who creates a product or service that starts a transformation. If there are great advocates for it, they can bring more resources—like the government—to drive it faster.
The cost structure of what they do is also important. You have to create a model that has decreasing costs with scale. If your costs are the same as you do more of it, it’s very expensive. It’s great if you can create a cool platform, like Kiva, where you spend up front to create the platform, but then as more and more people use it, costs per user fall.
SALLY: We’re no longer quite fighting the battle for social entrepreneurs as “entrepreneurs”—which we tried to do in the original article, to really anchor social entrepreneurship in entrepreneurship.
Now, we can move on. The real challenge is summoning the body of evidence to tell us what social entrepreneurship is getting done in the world.
It can provide real lessons and impetus for policy and business to track this wave, and make the better world we all know is possible.
ROGER: Our 2007 article helped spur conversation and debate, so I think we have a much better idea how social entrepreneurship works, but my suspicion is that people who love social entrepreneurship and want to drive it will cause us to learn some more.
So, we’re having fun watching and learning as much as we can, as fast as we can. But we don’t know everything, that’s for sure….
Q: You have said you want to keep social entrepreneurs optimistic. Can you explain?
SALLY: Tough-minded optimism [is] how I believe social entrepreneurs go about optimism. They see the opportunity and they ask themselves, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”
They pull up their socks, they get to work, but they keep in their sights this vision for what can be made not just better, but can be transformed—and that’s what they work towards.
Now that’s optimism on steroids, but it has the rigor, determination, and the discipline underneath it, that, to me, is so quintessentially socially entrepreneurial.
ROGER: The great social entrepreneurs already implicitly say, “I’m not just going to make it better, I’m going to fix it.” Our hope in categorizing an equilibrium change and explaining what it is, is to describe what “fix” looks like and why it’s so important, so that more folks who would say “I don’t like the current situation,” will say “Ah, the goal I should have is ‘I should fix it, I will change that equilibrium.'”
Part of the job of the book is to help make it easier for people to conceptualize what a real fix would look like, so they can keep their optimism high and their aspirations high.