Social entrepreneurship is becoming de rigueur as an alternative to the corporate career ladder for young people looking for work that is both intellectually stimulating and meaningful.
Three young women I know play in this space. Phillipa Wheaton (30), an Australian, is the CEO of enke: Make Your Mark. Based in South Africa, the organization supports teenagers who are proactive about addressing social problems.
Karissa Samuels (29) is the South African founder and CEO of the Ntshulisa Foundation, which aims to empower the nation, starting with children, by promoting civic participation and community involvement.
UK-raised Ruth Orbach (24) works for non-governmental organization (NGO) the African Leadership Academy as a monitoring, evaluation and learning manager – a space that is becoming increasingly important.
While all three are tired of the NGO label, preferring instead social enterprise, they are equally wary of self-titled ‘social entrepreneurs’. Samuels, who has been in the field for the past 10 years, explains: “Many people who began in the space with me have left because… of them not having a real interest in having a real social impact, but rather (using the sector) as a vehicle for their personal advancement.”
There may be goodwill, but “there simply isn’t enough interrogation of the needs”, says Orbach, who helps develop tracking systems to monitor the long-term impact of an investment on an organization.
Traditionally, the link between the success of a social enterprise and its impact on a community was presumed to be strong, but increasingly there is a need to re-examine this view. “People need to move beyond ‘something is better than nothing’,” urges Wheaton.
This desire to do more and to do better has seen many non-profits applying commercial strategies to maximize social benefits. And in fact there is significant potential for crossover of best practices in the profit and non-profit sectors.
All three young women agree we need to move away from the binary logic of the capitalist firm versus the NGO with a begging bowl. Instead, they see NGOs, social enterprises and for-profit companies as increasing points along a continuum.
Ideally, it is about businesses taking on a social element and non-profits incorporating business principles into their work. While in the long run, social enterprises could conceivably take over a large proportion of NGOs’ functions, there are limits. It becomes tricky for organizations such as orphanages, for which there is no market, in the traditional sense.
Judging from the conversation between the three, it is clear this sector is going through a number of exciting changes.
A TED Talk by activist Dan Pallotta called The way we think about charity is dead wrong has been shaking up the dominant narrative of the non-profit sector. Pallotta’s core argument is that we should not judge the effectiveness of NGOs based on overheads (salaries, rent or marketing). He claims that the non-profit sector is starved of the capital needed to adequately fuel growth and innovation, in order to fully address social problems.
Sustainability is another term that keeps cropping up in the NGO field, particularly the incidence of sustainability. The distinction between a purely capitalist business and a social enterprise is that one aims to sustain its operations indefinitely, while the other looks to sustain the impact of its operations indefinitely.
Wheaton, Samuels and Orbach agree that if they are to achieve the kind of impact they aspire to, they would ultimately put themselves out of work.
At the same time, the mantra, ‘Africa for Africa, by Africa’, is gaining momentum, resulting in Westerners and foreign do-gooders being met with skepticism.
It reminds me of when Nigerian author Teju Cole ruffled feathers with his controversial reaction to Kony 2012, the viral video calling for the arrest of war criminal Joseph Kony. Using the hashtag, ‘The White-Savior Industrial Complex’, Cole tweeted: “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.” He went on: “The White Savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”
However, it is important that we Africanists are careful not to alienate those with experience and expertise. At this stage of the game, our collective intelligence and financial muscle may not be enough to eliminate the social problems that lie ahead.
We will need all the help we can get from those willing to roll up their sleeves and work themselves out of the system.