THE BLOG
03/07/2011 10:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Social Change Humble Pie

Within the space of five days, two eminent thinkers on social change have busted my brain. David Abernethy is a Stanford Professor Emeritus of Political Science. Jed Emerson is the man most often credited with inventing the concept of blended value investing (doing well by doing good with your money).

I am respectfully awestruck. Neither of these social change thought leaders have fallen victim to economic development hubris. Quite the opposite, they are calling for a humbler approach to economic development and social entrepreneurism.

Abernathy, speaking to the Stanford Association for International Development, set the stage with this history lesson:

"The development field has had its fads and fancies....alleged magic bullets...large infrastructure projects (dams, ports, highways) and, at the other end of the spectrum, small-is-beautiful projects (small dams, hand-held solar lights, urban gardens); central government planning and, at the other end, the privatization of public sector activities...; import-substituting industrialization and its opposite, export promotion; land reform; social services, education and health; better macro-economic policies; democratization; better governance through reduced corruption, more effective tax collection and greater accountability...; administrative decentralization;...disaster relief; conflict resolution; economic and social entrepreneurship; microcredit, and so forth."

Five days later, Emerson, speaking at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club, ripped apart the conceit and jargon of social entrepreneurship, venture philanthropy and social investing:

"There is no fixed definition of a social entrepreneur and who cares anyway? It's time to stop talking about social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship is a means, and we are focused too much on it."

"Deification of the individual social entrepreneur -- instead of capacity-building, the team and the requisite community support -- is very destructive."

"Social entrepreneurship is about more than a compelling idea; it is about effective management of total resources. Too often we confuse intent with impact. There are too many great ideas and not enough effective execution."

"The pressure from funders and social investors to be innovative results mostly in rebranding old ideas. Most social business strategies are incremental improvements, not blinding game changers."

"We need to end 'drive-by philanthropic acts' and stop 'idea inflation' where too many people on both sides of the checkbook promote unproven ideas. A lot of philanthropy amounts to 'let a thousand flowers wither.'"

At the end of the month, I will be at the Skoll World Forum. Billed as "the premier, international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world's most pressing social issues," I expect to find out - in words, but more usefully in deeds - what social entrepreneurs can and should being doing with their time, money and talent.

As a social entrepreneur (yes, I have surrendered to the word, if not the whole belief structure), I and other Delegates to the Opportunity Collaboration (which I founded) are searching for pragmatic tools that work. The end-poverty-panacea remains so elusive. It is a bit unnerving how little we seem to really know about jump-starting large-scale economic opportunity for the most desperately poor.

What are you working on? Tell us all what you are doing to achieve lasting economic justice.