Social Entrepreneurship: A Currency for Change

03/30/2011 03:31 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2011

Last week, I had the privilege of joining a distinguished bi-partisan audience at the Kennedy Center to celebrate the life of President George H.W. Bush and his work to renew our nation's national appeal for volunteerism through his Points of Light Institute organization. This week, I am at Oxford University, attending the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. These events, occurring within a week of each other share a common theme; they celebrate the accomplishments of people who see an intractable problem, and refuse to accept that solutions are impossible.

The Points of Light Institute honored former President George H.W. Bush's work promoting volunteerism, highlighted for me the lingering halo of the prestige that materializes for former occupants of The Office of the President of the United States. During his remarks last week, Former President Bill Clinton, shared with the audience an innate sense of loss that is often felt by past Presidents after vacating the White House. He found his calling "through the establishment of the William J. Clinton Foundation," and the work they do in tackling some of the toughest health and development challenges confronting the poorest of nations.

Former President Jimmy Carter spoke about the unmitigated impact he encountered through volunteer experience with Habitat for Humanity, as a true measure of how he currently values his time since he departed the White House. President George W. Bush addressed the importance of communities uniting to help everyday citizens who simply need a little help. He added, "Compassion and communities are longstanding ideals that define the best of our nation." These former presidents have used their time to inspire in each of us the critical need give back to our communities. They have sought to direct our attention to the obligation we have as American citizens to serve and the benefits that come from providing selfless services.

At Oxford University this week, a relatively young man, Jeff Skoll, will use his wealth (Skoll was the first employee and President of eBay) as a catalyst for bringing together social entrepreneurs from around the world to meet and exchange ideas at a forum often referred to as "the Davos of the nonprofit community." The Skoll forum seeks to inspire service through the examples of best practices.

What I have observed from these two events is the enormous power and capacity of brilliant people to inspire change through their work to benefit humanity. Some are inspired by the calling of service from past leaders, while others simply saw a problem and devoted their life towards solving it.

In the United States I think of organizations like Teach for America, Youth Build, Kaboom, Habitat for Humanity and my own organization, Rebuilding Together. These organizations and many similar to them were inspired by entrepreneurial and business skills that are the equal to what is found in our corporate community. These organizations are led by pioneers who never saw a problem that they were too afraid to tackle. Leaders who fixed many of our educational problems by bringing our best and brightest young people into the classroom as teachers; leaders who never gave up on our troubled adolescents, by providing vocational experience and a GED, as an alternative to life within the criminal justice system; leaders who were inspired by their own communities and sought to provide the same joyous experience to today's youth by building playgrounds throughout our nation; and leaders who built and rebuilt homes because of their belief that quality and affordable housing remains the bedrock on which our communities are able to flourish.

As I will rediscover this week at Oxford, social entrepreneurship is not the sole currency of the United States. As the Skoll Forum has informed me each year, all around the world non-government organizations, or as they like to call it in the UK, Third Sector organizations, are achieving remarkable results in some of the most challenging environments around the world. In recent years, I have observed remarkable organizations that have delivered micro-enterprise facilities in the very poorest of nations; non-governmental organizations that have extended critical health care to the residents of the favelas in Brazil; and organizations that have expanded educational opportunities to children living in some of the poorest communities on our planet. Many, if not all, of these organizations were established within the country or continent on which they deliver their critical services. I find it reassuring that there is no monopoly on ideas or locations on which great social entrepreneurs can deliver their mission to those in desperate need.

In these days of continued uncertainty, my faith in humanity is often restored, by the impact of our third sector social entrepreneurs, and the many volunteers and sponsors who provide them with their much needed support. Our world is indeed a better place because of what they do.