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The Social Entrepreneurial Spirit – A Case Study

By Pamela Karch Bridges’ Research Coordinator

Last month, in our joint journal article, Bridges’ Executive Director, Lindsay Mitchell, and I outlined our learnings on the story of social entrepreneurship. We worked to understand how our enterprising ways as humans went from focusing on community betterment as motivated by caring for adequate survival of our family to being focused on a profitable financial return as motivated by caring for one’s self and their family. This exploration helped us determine not only why it became necessary to place “social” in front of entrepreneur, but also why understanding the intention or motivation for undertaking entrepreneurial activities is imperative.

What is the need?

A hunter/gatherer, or early human community, was a small and contained system; therefore individual actions had a direct and noticeable impact, both positive and negative, on your immediate community. And since your survival was tied to survival of the community, your actions, or entrepreneurial activities, often resulted in things that allowed the community to thrive. You saw and experienced the direct feedback loop of your actions on the rest of the community members, and wanted to encourage more of the same. Today the size and dynamics of our community is based on interconnected systems, such as the global economic market, that makes us all a part of a global community even if we don’t care at that level. It is on this global community that our enterprising actions are having an effect, but to which we do not personally experience the true direct or noticeable feedback from our actions. As a result, these systems enable us to meet our physical needs, and even maximize our personal success, through actions that no longer encourage the whole community to thrive, and in fact may be causing some members of the community to fail. So where historically an individual’s entrepreneurial spirit led to betterment for the community in order to ensure your own survival, in today’s community this same motivation for personal survival encourages entrepreneurial actions that lead to financial success, and material wealth. In essence, our base survival instinct hasn’t changed since the days of hunter/gatherers; we are motivated to take care of ourselves and our families. What has changed are the situational dynamics of communities, with a now global community, and the type of actions that result from this same fundamental human motivation or intention.

So what? Frankly put, humanity’s success can no longer rely on our base human survival instinct. Since our basic human survival motivation no longer leads to actions that improve or take into consideration the survival of a broader community, what is needed is the development of our moral conduct based on the evolution of how we care.  So then how do we develop our moral compass to care about the challenges humanity is facing, and what does it look like when this moral compass becomes the motivation for entrepreneurship?

Today, the need for compassion and the entrepreneurial spirit looks different than ever before. The entrepreneurial spirit is not only needed for physical survival, and it is not only necessary for monetary gain. There is a broader and more serious need for a compassionate entrepreneurial spirit: caring for humanity whether or not it directly relates to personal social status or survival. The case for the entrepreneurial spirit then is about challenging humans to develop moral conduct and character that is motivated by caring for members of our global community.

Our Moral Compass

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar… it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

I would like to believe that movements that opened the curtain to reveal the realities of poverty, racism, anti-Semitism, hate, gender inequality, homophobia, and more have changed the world, have been an example of caring. The movements, the leaders, the change-makers, the direct supporters have demonstrated caring and what the entrepreneurial spirit can look like when motivated by moral conduct and character enmeshed with compassion.

But when the movement results in change, when compassion becomes institutionalized, what about everyone else? Are the rest of us flipping coins to beggars? Or do we spend time building and nurturing our moral compass to broaden our horizons of caring? Do we become empowered and enabled to fight for others, just as leaders and change-makers have done before us? Or do we flip a coin without thinking about where it is going and why it is needed in the first place, because it is easier?

At one time we cared about survival as cave dwelling hunter/gatherers and since the industrial revolution we have cared about survival through money by way of stock markets, consumer products, and excessive individualistic wealth. We have a biosocial instinct pulling us into survival mode from our ancestral past, and a biosocial need to conform pushing us to stay on the money-making train to individual wealth and happiness. Sometimes developing our moral compass from a place of caring about humanity feels like pushing head first into an ocean wave – but it is necessary to do so if we want to overcome our challenges and evolve beyond our biosocial drive to survive and conform.

Many human rights movements succeeded in broadening our horizons of caring and resisting instincts to conform by insisting that compassion was needed for everyone. It was believed that compassion could not be left to religious institutions or “heroic” like individuals alone, and what resulted was the institutionalization and formalization of compassion through organizations like the United Nations and governmental bureaucracies (Durieux & Stebbins 2010, p. 25). This was a big change; we were acknowledging people’s suffering based on a history of marginalization and system failures. This institutionalization was a step to evolving how we care about humanity, but the unfortunate outcome of institutionalizing compassion made it easier for us to flip a coin to a beggar, to be removed from the systemic problems plaguing our societies. By leaving it up to someone else, we are not investing our time, energy, or heart into our own compassionate responsibilities – we are not building our moral compass to care for all humanity, or we avoid asking questions about how to overcome the systemic challenges that effect all lives. Now the conformity is to rely on institutions to care about people instead of caring ourselves.

This is our lived reality today, and yet it is at this time that the need for entrepreneurial spirit motivated by caring about humanity (not just survival or money) is imperative. We won’t have the ability to face these challenges if we are not questioning how we care and the extent of our caring. It is about forging a bridge between the entrepreneurial spirit and how we care for others. “Humanity is facing the largest challenges it has ever faced in its entire history…we need to go beyond this humanistic individualism, there is a we relationship between us – you can call it mysticism, you can call it holistic thinking – whatever you want but we in the West have a form of consciousness that is disabling” (Dr. Mark Durieux, personal communication, October 5, 2012).

Bio-socially when we care about survival and when we care about money we feel good because we are doing what everyone else is doing; we are doing the “right” thing. But the “right” thing might just be the one thing that cuts us off from evolving morally, and from caring about the challenges faced by all humanity.

A Case Study

So what does the entrepreneurial spirit look like when it is motivated by a moral compass built on the caring for humanity? In our last piece of writing, Lindsay and I touched on various ways we can employ this spirit. One of the examples was a young student who tackles bullying by creating a poster campaign in her school – this is the case study I will focus on here.

Imagine that it’s the first day of school – at a new school – and all those feelings of excitement, anxiety, nervousness, and hope mix together in your stomach. Your classmates are being friendly and curious, you have even been asked to hang out with a group of girls. A girl in your class wants to know if she can join the group. She is turned away harshly, and the other girls in the group continue calling her names and laughing at her as she sits by herself. The bell sounds and on your way in you stop by your bullied classmate and tell her you are sorry for the way those other girls treated her. She tells you that it has always been this way. You ask if anyone has ever done anything to stop it and she says, “No.” You think this is not right and not fair; no one should suffer this type of alienation and you wish to do something about the large and pervasive issue of bullying that plagues your school.

The social entrepreneurial spirit motivated by caring for others can result in many different social changes and challenges, both with positive and negative consequences. The student in this scenario has choices about the possible actions she can take in response to bullying:

With an entrepreneurial spirit motivated by caring for others, she can stand up for this individual student, become an ally for the bullied student, and on an even larger scale, create conversations in her school with students, teachers, and parents about bullying and its effects through poster campaigns, student groups, and presentations. All of these examples are entrepreneurial, but illustrate the varying degrees of what that spirit could look like when motivated by caring. However, by standing up for another human being and by taking actions that go against the status quo, the student risks the potential of being bullied or alienated herself. Our biosocial need to conform with others is a strong driver, and at times steers us in the direction of not taking action. Even if our gut and heart feels motivated by compassion, the rest of our body (hands, mouths, eyes) do nothing for the fear of being socially outcast. This knowledge of social alienation potentially halts us from making difficult choices, so much so that this student may decide not to stand up for her new friend or bullying because of the associated personal risk. Even though she may believe the treatment is not fair, risking her own social status can be a strong driver to do nothing. To stay in the group, she potentially conforms and becomes a bully – she perpetuates the difficult challenges we are all facing in our communities and around the world, by doing nothing or joining in. There is, what seems to be, a perceived individual risk if we are so willing to participate in discourse and action that is hurtful and harmful to those around us.

We are programmed to ignore difficult challenges when it means the outcome potentially alienates us from our social counterparts. This may be why so many of us ignore the mistreatment of people in our communities and around the world on a daily basis. If this is the difficulty, then what made her commitment to positive change fueled by an entrepreneurial spirit and motivated by caring in the first part so strong? What would motivate her actions when her social status was potentially on the line? In this scenario, the caring for another human being that is not directly connected to your immediate social community motivates the entrepreneurial spirit. If we work to broaden our horizons of caring and build our moral compass to come from a place of caring, our entrepreneurial undertakings might look a lot different. It might look like supporting people, asking hard questions about suffering, and putting into action a plan to alleviate that suffering, rather than seeking to develop band-aid solutions to suffering. This student was not expected to do anything about bullying, which makes me ask: what then is needed to develop the character and conduct that enables individuals to act compassionately in the world, even if they are not directly affected by existing injustices?

It is time for all of us to ask: what are we ignoring in our own lives and how is our potential ignorance and biosocial behaviour getting in the way of compassionate undertaking?

Where can we go from here?

“We can no longer depend on private compassion, saintly compassion, heroic compassion, but we all must be doing this together it’s got to be a very public inheritance, so the challenge is how do we do that?” ~ Dr. Mark Durieux (personal communication, October 5, 2012.)

Something we can consider to address the challenges humanity is facing in the world at this time is to take compassion out of the institution while embracing social entrepreneurship motivated by caring as a day-to-day practice for everyone. Every single person everywhere can be practicing an entrepreneurial spirit of compassion directed by a moral compass of caring by engaging in concern and care for the thriving of humanity. You do not have to work for a not-for-profit, charity, NGO, or any sort of institution to be entrepreneurial in this way; it can be a part of your leisure activities, free time, and even brought into your workplace. It is more about what motivates the spirit. It is about empowering people and communities to start on whatever level they choose, and if we can approach each person like this and support them at whatever stage they are at in the development and building of a moral compass of caring, we will see enormous cultural shifts and enormous potential for change.

Bridges is focused on learning about social entrepreneurship and continuing to provide resources, facilitation and connections for people to be involved in the culture of social entrepreneurship – but from a place motivated by caring for humanity. When we start to think about how we care and what the development of our moral conduct looks like, the potential for change is overwhelming and the journey is worth it. Social entrepreneurship for everyone is where we have to be to make and see positive change – but it is seeing a need and making a difference driven by developing moral conduct and character that will help all of us do this.

References

Durieux, M.B., & Stebbins, R.A. (2012). Social entrepreneurship for dummies. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing, Inc.

Martin Luther King, Jr. In Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved from  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.#cite_note-Zinn_2002-113.


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