Sunday, September 25, 2005

In Praise of Social Entrepreneurship

Every six seconds a child under the age of 5 dies from the effects of malnutrition (UNICEF). That means that by this time tomorrow 15,000 children under the age of 5 will have perished. It is important to note that the consequences of this tragedy reach beyond the regions of the earth where it is the unfortunate norm. Many of the most pressing problems we in the West face (e.g. war and terrorism) are at root the consequence of unsolved humanitarian problems. See

This humanitarian catastrophe has been with us despite the best efforts of many passionately committed aid workers for more than 50 years. Although we once may have once lacked the resource needed to feed the starving, that has not been the case for a great many years.

Marianne Williamson observes and asks:

Thirty-five thousand people a day die of hunger on earth, and there's no dearth of food. The question is not, 'what kind of God would let children starve?' but rather, 'What kind of people let children starve?'

The answer to Ms. Williamson's question is: Good people who misunderstand the nature of the problem and are misinformed about how best to solve it are the kind of people who let children starve.

Einstein remarked that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and yet ever expecting a different result. By Einstein's measure our approach to bringing an end to starvation has a touch of insanity about it.

The humanitarian aid industry has until recently tended to exclude from its ranks those who have the skills and experience needed to solve social and humanitarian problems: namely, business entrepreneurs. This exclusion, I believe, has retarded progress towards resolving many social problems.

Traditionally, only the independently wealthy; saints; and small numbers of people employed by charities have been able to put their time and talent along with their treasure into humanitarian work. In other words, only people like Prince Charles, Mother Theresa or Elizabeth Dole have been able to contribute of their time and talent unreservedly. The rest of us have been limited to making contributions from our treasure, and perhaps an occasional contribution of our time. Our talent, however, is too often unwelcome. We are asked to fund, but not otherwise participate in the humanitarian tasks at hand. As business entrepreneurs, and/or members of the public, our motives for wanting to be involved, other than as a donor, are too frequently considered suspect by aid workers.

If you visit any of the world's great business schools, such as those at Harvard, Stanford or Oxford, you will encounter only a very few students who are contemplating careers in the humanitarian sector.

Why is this the case?

These well trained problem solvers are at the beginning of their careers, and most often burdened with substantial debts accumulated over their many years of study. They need to earn a substantial return on their investment of time and money just to break even, not to mention securing their own and their dependents' future.

Investment banking, marketing, consulting, venture capital and entrepreneurial ventures offer them the best opportunity to achieve this end. Humanitarian careers, unless one finds a position resembling Elizabeth Dole's $2,000,000 per annum at the Red Cross, don't offer much financial security. Young graduates, and many others, often feel forced to choose between "success" and "significance."

Perhaps some of you have felt a similar pull. We want to lead lives of significance, but first we need to secure our finances. Maybe when we retire we will be able to afford to spend some time and money on things that matter, but until then there are bills to pay. Have you been there? I have.

Several months ago I interviewed a woman in London who was investigating the NTC humanitarian entrepreneurship career path. She had previously worked with orphans in Africa for four years. She told me that helping to care for orphans in Africa is her life's great passion. I asked her why if that is her passion she left Africa for London. Her answer: "I got tired of being poor."

Isn't it odd that we can seek to earn a small fortune marketing lung cancer, stroke and heart attack for a tobacco company, or perhaps just a good living by selling cigarettes at a corner market, and few will think ill of us? We can work at leaving the world a little less well off than we found it, and people will accept that we must earn our keep. And, as long as the work is legal, whatever it is-- with one exception--it is ok to earn a good living.

That exception: It is not ok, in the minds of many, to try to earn a good living solving serious humanitarian problems. As a consequence we can supply anyone on earth, even the most destitute, with cigarettes, but we can't manage to get meals that cost the equivalent of 3 cigarettes a day, to the 15,000 children whose lives will end in agony tonight! Think about that for a minute.

It's basic psychology: You will always get more of the behavior you reward and less of what you do not. Behavior rewarded is repeated, and behavior unrewarded is eventually extinguished. That's how the world works. Somehow this basic truth seems to have escaped a great many members of the general public.

The solution to feeding malnourished children in other lands does not and should not require us to deny our own children food.

When it comes to solving humanitarian problems people have somehow come to believe that the ordinary rewards of business are a bad thing. There were those in the old Soviet Union who believed that if the profit was taken out of food production people would have more to eat, but history tells us that what they got was food shortages and corruption.

In contrast, consider how effectively entrepreneurs have brought down the cost of communication. I remember when I feared the arrival of my telephone bill. Now I spend pennies for what I once spent pounds. Incentives to provide and improve the delivery of products and services really work to produce good results when properly applied.

This same entrepreneurial energy is now being effectively focused on many different social and humanitarian problems. In the case of the Nourish the Children Alliance 32,000,000 plus meals to feed children at risk of death from starvation have been donated over the past three years as a direct consequence of this focus.

The Oxford NTC Alliance Ambassador is dedicated to promoting the cause of humanitarian entrepreneurship. Although my own humanitarian enterprise is aligned with Nourish the Children and its Alliance partners (e.g. Feed the Children, World Vision, and other carefully vetted NGOs), I hope the content posted here will prove of value to all of you who seek to earn your keep by acting as an entrepreneurial force for good.
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Blogger David Robison said...

Hi Tom,

Welcome to Blogging!

You fit the bill as "ambassador" for a great many causes and topics.

I look forward to the growth of this effort and your future thoughts.


11:23 pm  

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