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David Brooks, Politics and Social Entrepreneurs

Posted on April 23, 2012 in Sector News

This editorial, first posted on and reposted here with permission, is in response to David Brooks' April 12 New York Times editorial titled "Sam Spade at Starbucks" (read it here). The author, J. Gregory Dees, a professor in The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, created the first course in social entrepreneurship in the United States. Dees is also the Co-Founder of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. You can follow CASE on twitter (@CASEatDuke) or their blog (

In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks takes note of the increasing popularity of social entrepreneurship – but unfortunately frames it as a kind of naïve idealism, a path by which young people will avoid political participation and fail to confront the “corruption, veniality, and disorder head-on.”  I could not disagree more.

I have worked with and studied social entrepreneurs for three decades. They are far from naïve idealists who avoid harsh political realities. They are driven by ideals, yes, but at heart they are hard-nosed pragmatists. Far from ignoring “corruption, veniality, and disorder,” where these are issues, they tackle them directly. Karen Tse at International Bridges to Justice works to reform corrupt criminal justice systems across China. Witness, an organization built up mainly by the social entrepreneur Gillian Caldwell, provides video cameras, trainings and technology platforms so people can document human rights abuses and effectively pressure governments to reform. Transparency International, founded by Peter Eigen, monitors, ranks and publicizes corruption in business, politics and international development – and has created the most widely referenced indices of global corruption. And these are just a few examples of how social entrepreneurs are taking on difficult governance issues.  The list could go on. These are functions that obviously could not be left to government alone -- things that would take long periods of time to achieve through the ballot box, if they could be achieved that way at all.

In the US, many social entrepreneurs are actively engaged in civic life, too. The Corporation for National Service exists today largely because of the example, actions, and engagement of social entrepreneurs. One of the leaders of that movement, Alan Khazie, co-founder of City Year, and a figure of inspiration to many young world-changers, not only took a run at the US senate seat from Massachusetts, but recently published a book called Big Citizenship, in which he argues for greater engagement of citizens in political and institution-building processes. The ServiceNation event and campaign that Khazie spearheaded engaged many politicians in the effort to expand nationael service – including Barack Obama and John McCain. Khazie is just one example of many politically engaged social entrepreneurs.

Social entrepreneurs do not discourage political participation – they invent new mechanisms for achieving the public good. Quite often solutions to problems require not just mobilizing political support but actually demonstrating how to solve problems that have confounded others. It doesn’t matter how much pressure you put on the government to fix a problem if the existing agencies don’t actually know how to fix it. In this regard, social entrepreneurship is an essential complement to the political process – not just where there is disorder, but even in well-governed societies. Everyone knows we need innovation in this time of strained government budgets. How else do we achieve better results with fewer resources? Social entrepreneurs serve as society’s “learning laboratory,” developing, testing, and refining new approaches to problems in ways that government agencies, with all their budgetary, bureaucratic, legislative, jurisdictional, and political constraints cannot do. These innovators represent the kind of decentralized problem solving that Nobel Lauriat Douglass North identifies as essential for any society to achieve what he calls “adaptive efficiency,” the ability to adjust and thrive in the face of new challenges and shifting problems.  Now, more than ever, we need innovative, adaptive societies.

Think of the kinds of social problems we face today: how to get health care to the poor (and everyone else more efficiently), how to get clean water or energy to those with limited access, how to get quality education to at risk youth, how to protect children from abuse and bullying, how to get companies to reduce their environmental footprints. To solve them, we need to revitalize institutions across society – governments, businesses and nonprofits. This requires entrepreneurship. Today’s social entrepreneurs learn quickly how difficult it is to do this work well. As a result, they learn humility. They learn to think pragmatically and systemically. They balance the need to work outside governments to enjoy greater flexibility – and to work with government to achieve structural changes. They come to understand the competitive advantages and natural limitations of people working in different sectors.

We should celebrate that so many young people are drawn to social entrepreneurship, not bemoan this trend. They will be smarter about their political choices as a result. It may not swell the ranks of the campus Democrat and Republican clubs in the short term, but it will lead to greater and more thoughtful political engagement in the longer term.

Finally, one thing that social entrepreneurs tend not to be is staunchly ideological. People who are obsessed with solving problems at a significant scale learn quickly that success means making trade offs and compromises – advancing good-enough solutions that can spread and take root politically rather than idealized ones that appeal to the pure of heart. That’s why they tend not to be attracted to the kind of partisan bickering that fills the airwaves and the halls of Washington, D.C. Growing interest in social entrepreneurship is not causing the political malaise in this country; rather it is a reaction to it. In fact, if there is a cure to this malaise, it may come from a generation of people who are more interested in solving problems than winning arguments, who want to build politically inclusive structures, rather than out maneuver or deride their opponents. Today’s youth may seem to approach their social improvement work in a more upbeat, collegial, and optimistic way than the noir heroes (like Sam Spade) that Brooks celebrates in his critique, but that does not mean they lack seriousness, critical eyes or hard-boiled realism. Don’t underestimate them.

This editorial is reposted with permission from the author and Dowser, the site on which it first appeared.

SEA has worked in partnership with the Fuqua School of Business, including on the 2009 Field Study, which can be found here.




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