Social Entrepreneur Search

Last week, Social Edge formally rolled out Social Entrepreneur Search (read the full announcement here) an open-source database designed to encourage “finders” and “funders” to support the efforts of successful social entrepreneurs.

Anyone can customize and embed the widgets that access the search data and even use the search to highlight specific entrepreneurs, regions, issue areas, or funders by creating and embedding custom widgets like this one–a spotlight on social entrepreneurs working in Health and funded by the Skoll Foundation:

<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://seapi.dk.exygy.com/js/embed.js”></script><script type=”text/javascript”>exygy_embed_results(“9″,”572349203″,”0″,”IA==”,”colorRed”, “http://seapi.dk.exygy.com/&#8221;);</script>

The project gets plenty of “cool” points in and of itself, but here are some reasons I find it truly remarkable:

First, the project represents a true collaboration.These organizations recognized a need–for the entrepreneurs they support, not necessarily themselves–and took concrete steps to fill it. They put aside organizational ego, stepped out of their own silos, and fronted the resources to build something open, extensible and powerful.

Second, the search is a step toward what we’ve taken to calling “catalytic capital.” The open database of vetted programs could encourage more organizations interested in social entrepreneurship but lacking the experience and human capital to vet projects themselves, to venture into the space and could help address some of the growth capital issues many of these remarkable organizations face after they’ve tapped the typical major funders.

And third, as a free resource equally accessible to interested individuals, educators and media representatives from the brand-new blogger to the New York Times, the Social Entrepreneur Search has the potential to raise the profile of social enterprise, so the examples of successful (and even struggling) social entrepreneurs the world over can inspire innovation and challenge the status quo on an ever grander, and ever more personal scale.

A little nagging concern stems from the fact that all of the participating organizations are mezzanine funders (and therefore nearly all of the social entrepreneurs featured in the database are beyond the startup phase). The Social Entrepreneur Search won’t turn up the next paradigm-shifting changemaker. And given the typical foundation’s aversion to anything “not invented here,” and the typical reporter’s blood-lust for the scoop, I wonder how well it will actually attract funding and exposure for the featured organizations.

The search may also inadvertantly reinforce what Charles Light calls the social entrepreneurship “cult of personality”–a focus on the contributions of a few singular luminaries that leaves thousands of other individuals, teams and organizations striving in relative isolation to build meaningful social change “often reinventing the wheel as they struggle to discern lessons from a relatively small number of exemplary peers.”

Still, the search is undeniably a step in the right direction–and may well provide both a solid foundation and a jumping-off point for genuine collaborative efforts that will help expand the field and magnify the impact of social entrepreneurship in this next decade.

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