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Are social entrepreneurs crazy?

Social entrepreneurs have never been in greater demand, as the world grinds on with tired solutions to seemingly intractable problems such as hunger, poverty, war, inequality and disease. And in theory, social entrepreneurs bring new ideas that challenge the prevailing wisdom that these problems are intractable at all.

They are front and center in developing countries, with new vaccines to combat disease, water pumps to irrigate crops and micro-loans to start new businesses. And they are working in every corner of government, nonprofits and private firms to imagine innovative ways of creating clean energy, improving graduation rates, rebuilding poor neighborhoods and confronting the jobless recovery.

The question is whether we have enough social entrepreneurs to play this role. They have rightly earned growing support from philanthropists such as Warren and Howard Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates, Catherine Reynolds, and Jeffrey Skoll, and from foundations such as Ford, New Profit, Edna McConnell Clark and Templeton. But the prevailing wisdom about social entrepreneurship (and there is a prevailing wisdom in the field) says there are only a small number of social entrepreneurs out there, perhaps as few as one in every ten million people.

And it's hard to push that number higher when there's an emerging portrait of social entrepreneurs as just plain crazy, or at least "crazy enough" to think their ideas might work. The notion is that entrepreneurs need a good dose of hypomania--a notion currently being promoted by John Hopkins University professor John D. Gartner in his new book The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America.

Here's how Gartner explains the impact of hypomania in business entrepreneurship: "Hypomania is a mild form of mania, often found in the relatives of manic depressives. Hypomanics are brimming with infectious energy, irrational confidence, and really big ideas. They think, talk, move, and make decisions quickly. Anyone who slows them down with questions 'just doesn't get it.' Hypomanics are not crazy, but 'normal' is not the first word that comes to mind when describing them."

It is hardly the kind of portrait that invites talented people to make the leap to a new idea. But this has not stopped funders from embracing the idea. The esteemed Ashoka society, which funds aspiring social entrepreneurs, embraced the idea in a breathless posting on its ChangeInsight blog last month. According to the blogger, Gartner's idea is "old news" to Ashoka's CEO, Bill Drayton, "who first set out in search of a very particular kind of crazy person almost 30 years ago. He articulated what, exactly, he was looking with a phrase that could just as easily describe paranoid schizophrenics as social entrepreneurs: 'Are they possessed, really possessed by an idea?'"

But Drayton doesn't believe it any more than other experts do. Being possessed is not the same as being hypomanic. Nor is it a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder or paranoid schizophrenia. Rather, it is a form of intense purpose rooted in the belief that the world must change.

At least for social entrepreneurs, purpose is essential for driving change of any kind, and it appears to be rooted in deep beliefs about the social entrepreneur's obligation to challenge and change the prevailing wisdom about how the world might look. Purpose underpins more visible virtues such as empathy, optimism and even love for others, which underpin even more visible characteristics such as "grit," rigor, diligence and optimism.

Take KaBOOM! CEO Darell Hammond as a perfect example. He is anything but crazy, but he is intensely purposed. He started KaBOOM! to build playgrounds in distressed urban neighborhoods. Driven by his own belief that playgrounds could create the sense of community needed for deeper renewal, he built it into the largest purchaser of playground equipment in the United States.

Hammond is fun, charismatic in his own way, and an institution builder. Even the KaBOOM! office suite shows his passion. Buried in the basement of the old WCCO building on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., the suite is filled with color, energized employees and a palpable sense of purpose. Yes, Hammond works very hard, and, yes, he is truly possessed by his idea. But he's also an ordinary fellow, the kind you'd meet on any street, even in my hometown, New York City. He is just extraordinarily purposed.

I believe this purpose possesses everyone who decides to change the world. I also believe purpose can be inflamed, nurtured and sustained. It can even be taught.

Business entrepreneurs are driven by profit and the occasional pursuit of social responsibility; social entrepreneurs have a different view. They are willing to sacrifice for the long haul, forgo big salaries, work in isolation and face unyielding harassment as they seek to change social norms and public policy.

The prevailing wisdom about intractable despair is not the prevailing wisdom for nothing--it fights hard to stay in control. Anyone who takes on the status quo must be willing to play hardball, whether on Capitol Hill, in dispirited communities, or even in the 90 blocks now being revitalized by the Harlem Children's Zone.

That is not hypomania, but purpose, at work. That's what Drayton is looking for, and what Hammond has. The more we all concentrate on basic purpose, the better the world will be.

By Paul Light

 |  October 13, 2010; 9:38 AM ET |  Category:  Innovation , Nonprofit leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

you check out my youtube channel and tell me who is crazy.

youtube.com/whichdegree4me - The youtube channel dedicated to students of all ages.

Thanks to youtube I can interview those with degrees, and share it with the world of the internet. The next step is getting the younger generation online at home AND at school.

Posted by: EMCP_ | October 29, 2010 9:16 PM

Social Venture Partners (SVP)is the largest network of engaged,passionate (not crazy) social entrpreneurs in the world.

We care deeply about touching every life with our gifts and improving the world one community at a time. We catalyze others in our commuinity and pool our resources (time, money and contacts) to strengthen local non-profits – working directly with these organizations to help them become sustainable and better able to fulfill their mission.

We do this through investments working directly with these organizations, using our skills as strategic consultants to make these organizations stronger. By engaging directly we learn how to make an impact in our community far greater than any of us could ever make on our own.

We have 26 partnerships in North America, Canada, and Japan that comprise 1900+ committed philanthropists who have given 400+ non profits more than $36.5 million dollars cash and 3X to 6X that amount in in-kind contributions.

To learn more about or to become engaged, visit www.svpi.org

Posted by: asorkin | October 26, 2010 4:20 PM

My mother would fit this description. She's a whirlwind of a volunteer in her community and has been for nearly 50 years. Nothing ever seems futile to her, no amount of poverty or dirt or resistance. She simply walks in and begins to work. If no one else joins, she'll do it all herself, but she gets results. Only once have I seen her give up and say, "Well, it's true that there are some people you just can't help." Her energy and ability to see past the roadblocks have made improved many people's lives.

Posted by: red_hawk1968 | October 19, 2010 10:49 AM

Yes, I believe so. It was asked directly in Russia, spiritual home of the zero sum game, when someone said "You come here and create business to give it away to other people. Are you another group of communists or are you just crazy?"

With the prevailing ideology in the US at the time, it was more sensible to admit to insanity.

Interviewed later on the Tomsk initiative in 2004 our founder said of his profit for purpose approach "At first, the idea seemed heresy - but not for long, simply because it made sense and it didn't step on the toes of any existing enterprises that were in business to enrich relatively few people."

So yes, mad and heretic but no communists.

Posted by: JeffMowatt | October 18, 2010 3:14 PM

There will always be crazy people out there willing to take risks disproportionate to reality. And a very few of them (say, one in 10 million) will happen to wind up in the right place at the right time, notwithstanding their craziness.

What's really kool-aid drinking certifiable, though, is trying to frame an argument that these folks are imbued with some greater sense of purpose and vision than everyone else.

Posted by: Itzajob | October 17, 2010 4:34 PM

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