Boxing above your weight

J. Gregory Dees

Over the last few days, I have been introduced to a new idea that I find very exciting. The idea is 'social entrepreneurship'.

The thinking behind this idea goes like this: society typically thinks of an entrepreneur as a person who is innovative in the business sector, but a person can be innovative in the social sector instead. In the paper The Meaning of "Social Entrepreneurship", J Gregory Dees runs through the various aspects of what an entrepreneur is. Here they are in brief:

  1. The French economist, Jean Baptist Say, described an entrepreneur as a person who "shifts economic resources out of an area of lower [productivity] and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield". As Dees explains, this means that entrepreneurs create value.
  2. The 20th century economist, Joseph Schumpter, argued that entrepreneurs were the people behind great changes and advances in production. They saw ways to do things differently and exploited these to bring about large-scale change in an industry or in the economy. This means that an entrepreneur isn't simply a person who starts up a business; it's a person who sees a new way of doing things and puts the vision into action, thereby generating significant change in the lives of many people.
  3. Peter Drucker, an expert in management and business, argued that entrepreneurs are people who don't so much create change as exploit the opportunities that change generates. He says: "the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity". He didn't think that a person needed to have the motive of making money to be an entrepreneur. It was exploiting opportunities in an innovative way that mattered.
  4. Howard Stevenson, from the Harvard Business School, looked at the difference between entrepreneurs and those who are straight administrators. He concluded that an entrepreneur pursues opportunity "without regard to resources currently controlled". In other words, they are people who have a dream and don't let the lack of resources stop them from following their dream and making a difference. Those in common administrative management positions do not have the same vision or the drive.

In the paper, Dees then goes on to explain that, whereas for business entrepreneurs the goal is to make money, for social entrepreneurs the goal is a social good. Social entrepreneurs are in a different position to their business equivalents because they don't operate in a market. For example, they can't get those who benefit from their enterprise to pay for the service they are receiving. Building on the definitions above and on the circumstances social entrepreneurs find themselves in, Dees ends up defining a social entrepreneur in the following way.

"Social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector, by:

  • Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value),
  • Recognising and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission,
  • Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaption, and learning,
  • Acting boldy without being limited by resources curently in hand, and
  • Exhibiting heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created."

Where am I going with this? I am going here: the Baha'i Faith needs social entrepreneurs. To take Dee's description again, here's what I think we need:

"Social entrepreneurs are reformers and revolutionaries ... but with a social mission. They make fundamental changes in the way things are done in the social sector. Their visions are bold. They attack the underlying causes of problems, rather than simply treating the symptoms... They seek to create systematic changes and sustainable improvements."

In order to change and develop for the better, society is reliant on social entrepreneurs doing their thing. If they are stiffled, a society cannot grow. This is the trouble the Baha'i community is in. It has an administration, but its administrators are not entrepreneurs. The system that is supposed to train and inspire believers to take responsibility for driving the Faith forward - that is, Ruhi - does not work. It tinkers around the edges of problems but does not deal with fundamental problems. There are parallels here with governments. David Burnstein, in his FAQ on How to Change the World, argues that social entrepreneurs can succeed where governements will fail.

"Rather than pursuing ideas through an organic, bottom-up 'entrepreneurial' process that encourages creativity and human initiative at each step of the way; governments are often organized for top-down bureaucratic processes that often dampen, or restrict, individual initiative. Finally, all ideas need "champions" to push them forward-- people who are obsessed with making them work and will not give up until they succeed."

In fact, there is no place for social entrepreneurs in the Baha'i community. The administrators don't like them. Social entrepreneurs that the community has generated so far and have stuck their neck out have run foul of the administration. Let's look at a few examples:

Juan Cole devoted his life to studying the Arabic and Persian languages and Islamic Studies. He was able to write academic works about the Faith and make high quality translations of the writings. He is also a gifted writer and teacher and was therefore able to greatly increase the believers' knowledge of their faith. He was threatened with being declared a covenant breaker and resigned from community membership.

Sen McGlinn has also devoted his life to learning Arabic and Persian and to Islamic Studies. He was written and self-published an excellent book with an exhaustive examination of the difficult issue of church and state. It has the potential to revolutionise our thinking on this issue. He was disenrolled from the Baha'i community.

Tony Lee's dream was to publish high quality books in Baha'i Studies. He has published a series in Baha'i Studies as well as a large number of other books that increase our understanding of the faith. His Kalimat Press is now boycotted by the administration in various countries.

A society needs social entrepreneurs to grow, and so does the Baha'i community. But the Baha'i administration is alienating the ones that appear. If the community is to experience real change, then it's going to require believers who are willing to keep on pursuing their dream even if they run foul of the administration. Let's look at the requirements such a person needs to have, as they are outlined in the list above. You need:

  • to see an innovative way to create and sustain social value in the community,
  • to relentlessly pursue new ways of achieving your vision,
  • to continuously innovate, adapt, and learn,
  • to accept the fact that you'll work alone and with limited resources,
  • to deliver a high quality service or product.

Baha'u'llah never said it would be easy. He tells us that it's God's way to set up seemingly impossible situations so that his champions will stand out. Just because others have failed, let's not think that this robs us of our opportunity. Anyone with the vision and drive can, if they choose, take the chalice that Baha'u'llah is offering and generate lasting social change for the Faith.

"If you fail to pursue this path with perseverance, God will send another people that will be firm in his Cause and will commemorate him with distraction, yearning and ecstasy. Nothing in the heavens or on earth will deter them. On these the angels and the Spirit will pronounce blessings, as will the concourse of holiness, and those who were within the pavilion of nearness behind the veil. Is there anything that does not mention their names and thereby draw near to God? Say: By God, their names are tolled by the bell, crowed by the cockerel of paradise, and sung by the rebec. Thus are the words of your Lord completed in veracity and justice. Nothing can alter the words of your Lord, but none can comprehend this truth save the souls endued with excellence and immortality." Baha'u'llah: Surah of the Companions

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