Now is the Time for U.S. Cities to Embrace Social Entrepreneurs
City leaders face unprecedented challenges today. They have to lead in utter uncertainty during times of a pandemic coinciding with economic collapse and an urgent call for civil rights. They have to implement budget and service cuts, tackle a rapidly growing demand for social care and justice and somehow restart their local economy. The good news is that in today’s world, there are many who can lend a helping hand to not just maintain service levels but help rebuild our systems to be more resilient.
Let me propose that you learn about people like Rosanne Haggerty, a social entrepreneur who tirelessly works to end homelessness with over 90 US cities halls. Thirteen of them have graduated to effectively eliminating homelessness. Or Sonya Passi, another social entrepreneur who helps people escape intimate partner violence by helping them become financially self-sufficient. Or Mark Johnson, an ex-offender who by giving users of rehabilitation services a voice empowered them to have agency in their journey back into society. There are thousands of social entrepreneurs just like them who often fill the gaps of public services or develop alternatives to ineffective solutions.
Social entrepreneurs should play a key role in your arsenal of measures to take the pain out of your emergency budgets and tackle the uncertainty ahead. To do this effectively, you need to understand who these people are. Social entrepreneurs are innovators for the public, but they are not startups. Where most venture capital backed startups are founded white men from elite universities, social entrepreneurs are gender balanced and have often experienced first hand the social problem they are trying to solve. This gives them a special level of empathy with even complex cases, but also makes them formidable community organizers. In fact, social entrepreneurs aren’t really individuals — Rosanne represents a collective endeavor of many. Often they also differ from charities, social business or local service organizations in that they typically do not only want to fill service gaps, but deliver lasting change by addressing the root causes of societal issues.
If you’re in government, it is important to understand these differences. And they have practical implications: unlike a vendor or local service provider, for example, social entrepreneurs are quite commonly happy to see their ideas or methods replicated in government and elsewhere. What counts for them is the impact and progress, not who does it or the revenue it generates. Good social entrepreneurs embrace data and evidence to relentlessly optimize for their impact, because that’s their goal. If you want innovation that works and wants to work, look no further.
Many city leaders have spent the past years wooing startups and the magic potential they can bring transform our cities or economy. As a result, our analysis of procurement data in 2019 shows that US cities adopted venture backed unproven technologies at twenty times the rate of proven innovations from social entrepreneurs like Rosanne, Sonya and Mark. But our looming period of austerity should sharpen our purpose. In the UK, a country that has had to optimize for weathering austerity for more than a decade now, the rate of innovation in local governments is about three times higher than the US, with social innovation constituting about half the activity.
Cities should embrace the opportunity social entrepreneurs provide. As sustained austerity will force cities to transform and even cut public services in an environment of rising needs, social entrepreneurs offer some tested answers and are most willing to adapt and optimize to get the best results. They are a powerful partner to make cities more resilient by mobilizing alliances around system change, to tackle the root causes underlying the problems we experience. And as an ecosystem, social entrepreneurs look a lot more like your city: they are much more diverse then your vendor base, have first hand experience of the social problems they solve and are anchored in the communities they serve.
Let me propose three things you can do to get started.
1/ Open the door to social entrepreneurs. Just as you do market research, you should also seek out social entrepreneurs pursuing goals aligned with your priorities. I say focus on the goals because their solution may seem alien to how you work. Suspend disbelief for a moment and bring them to the table and exchange your views about what success could look like from your respective viewpoints. Create an environment where you can openly exchange ideas and expectations and invite them to be upfront about their needs and hesitations. Like all entrepreneurs their solutions or organizations may have different degrees of maturity.
2/ Wield your power kindly. There is an inevitable asymmetry between a social entrepreneur and a government entity. All too often this is manifested in a demanding attitude, treating the smaller counterparts as someone who seeks business, at great cost to the social entrepreneur and the unfolding relationship. Take a nurturing approach instead, with faith your shared goals. If done well, you will arrive at a sustainable relationship of trust in which you are cultivating a community asset. A focus on capabilities will help you identify ways to support the social entrepreneur to become an inspiring and valuable force for good. This may include networking them with your stakeholders, providing grants and initial contracts, providing openings through procurement, funding pilots and impact evaluations, or convening potential (co)funders. And here are things to avoid: becoming a gatekeeper to city hall, treating social entrepreneurs like a service provider, giving them a single “shot” at pitching their solution, passing their ideas on to others you know better or taking decisions behind closed doors.
3/ Look for shared values first. As cities look for partners, they often use proxies like size or a roster of impressive backers as a filter. Avoid this. Some social entrepreneurs build awesome organizations, with years of independent funding and incredible capacity. Naturally, such organizations are well positioned to serve governments at scale. But remember that social entrepreneurs may fall between funder priorities or come from communities that experienced hardship and may not have easy access to funders or managerial talent. In fact, you may be the one they need to reach those next levels. Social entrepreneurs also don’t have to provide direct services, but may achieve their impact in any number of ways: they may help you adopt their ideas, may mobilize alliances to change existing ways, may organize communities to participate or join your team inside government. What matters in your relationship is the common pursuit of what works.
4/ Cultivate the ecosystem. Most social entrepreneurs rely on an ecosystem of volunteers, donors, communities they serve and supporting organizations like Ashoka and Echoing Green. Each of these stakeholders places a different set of demands on their work. As a government you can add enormous value to the social initiative as well as the ecosystem, but be mindful to work with other supporters to collaborate for success, rather than add to the diverging pressures. One effective way to do this is to work with the social entrepreneur to map their stakeholders and cultivate relationships to develop a shared vision of success, how you can combine resources and help the social entrepreneur on the path to get there.
I write all this having been on both sides of the relationship. As a social entrepreneur I have built relationships with hundreds of governments over the past decade. It is mostly very hard to be seen not simply as a vendor with an offering, but an interested party offering to contribute to lasting change. But I have also witnessed inspired public servants trying to help social entrepreneurs who end up struggling with internal procedural and cultural barriers inside their governments that made it very hard to build a nurturing relationship. Embracing social entrepreneurs requires broad leadership and creating a culture that shows appreciation and optimism.
Interested in this topic?
Join me on November 19th at 9am ET / 3pm CET for “Cracking the Collaboration Jackpot”, a panel at the Ashoka Changemaker Summit to address the collaboration of city leaders and social entrepreneurs in a Covid-19 world with Maria Vassilakou (former Deputy Mayor of Vienna), James Anderson (Director of Government Innovation Bloomberg Cities), Denisa Livingston (leader of the Dine Community Alliance, Navajo Nation).