When individuals and institutions meet

Tags: Op-ed
When individuals and institutions meet
Laura Stachel
LIGHTING UP LIVES: Liberian health workers with a solar suitcase created by Laura Stachel (not pictured), one of the ten innovations featured in Ken Bank’s book The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator
Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu had this to say in his foreword to Ken Banks’ edited book: “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator is a collection of real-life stories that show what’s possible if people are open, take an interest and don’t take the easy option of turning their back, but instead doggedly search for answers to problems effecting not just the people in front of them but, in many cases, tens of millions of other people around the world.”

These real-life stories in the book present not just innovative solutions to complex social problems, but first-hand accounts of the doggedness mentioned by bishop Tutu, required to transform good ideas into practical, affordable and implementable solutions.

There have been a rash of books on social entrepreneurship, written by academics, writers and civil society thinkers who have observed the field from a distance but who are not themselves social entrepreneurs stomping in the swamps. So if you want to enter the messy world, mind and matrix of a social entrepreneur — actually ten of them — then this book offers a doorway.

Banks’ collection goes a step further, implied by the intentionally provocative title. The innovations happen to be accidental or serendipitous and sometimes, pursued with a degree of ‘reluctance’ because no one else would. The social entrepreneurs did not start out looking for that big social problem to solve but, rather, stumbled on an unanticipated problem that they were compelled to find a solution for. In some cases, they stumbled on a new idea that then turned out to be a solution for a major social problem — a small hammer that found a big nail.

In the backdrop of growing interest in social entrepreneurship at some of the world’s top institutions, especially business schools, Banks had argued elsewhere that cutting edge social innovation is not necessarily, or predominantly, happening in formal institutions but rather outside of them. Typically, you don’t take courses in social entrepreneurship, then go out into the world and solve a complex social problem. He concludes the introductory chapter by contending, “The only qualifications you need to change the world are a little faith, hope and determination.”

That is not to undermine the role of a good education. Social change tends to happen at the intersection of many fields. Most social entrepreneurs have to pick up skills and knowledge along the way that their education (or life experiences) may not have directly imparted, but which prepared them to acquire as and when required. Banks’ advice is, “Learn to do what you can’t afford to pay other people to do.”

The life-stories in Banks’ book echo a familiar challenge in social entrepreneurship. Why do even time-tested and proven solutions, backed by sufficient evidence, still don’t scale up for decades, if at all, through established state and non-state institutions, whose stated mandate or mission, is to address those very same social problems?

A common refrain in the field is that there is nothing more powerful than a social innovation in the hands of a top-notch social entrepreneur. The individual social entrepreneur is expected to then drive the social change with her or his unbounded passion and limitless drive.

The role of institutions is to support the individual, especially in the early stages, give awards along the way and invitations to powerful networks. Support the individual, and if she or he is truly a first-rate social entrepreneur, the desired social change will follow. On rare occasions, it does. On a few occasions, it happens after decades. But in many cases, the true potential of many worthy social innovations remains unrealised even if they may still be celebrated as success stories.

A good idea in the hands of an amazing entrepreneur is necessary but not sufficient. It is as true for the business sector as it is for the social sector. In the business world that institution is often a venture capital firm or an angel investor.

In the world of social innovation and entrepreneurship, institutions vested with enormous credibility and social capital, institutions that governments, the corporate sector and civil society respect, would do well to assume co-ownership of at least a few carefully hand-picked social innovations.

The idea for these institutions is not to separate the social innovation wheat from the chaff, but rather, the wheat from the fortified wheat. It is not to cheer from the sidelines with an award or an invitation to speak, but to make a strategic investment of one’s social capital, including a transition into new roles of careful evaluation, advocacy, and strategic support, from a position of co-ownership, with its attendant risks and rewards.

Social change is hard. Left only to individuals, we have heroes as in Banks’ book. If we wish to increase the success rate of going beyond interesting stories to sustainable, scalable and lasting social change, institutions will need to join forces. To scale, a powerful idea in the hands of a passionate individual, will have to graduate to institutional co-ownership.

(The writer is a social entrepreneur and is on the faculty of IIM-Ahmedabad)

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