Philanthropy for social leadership

Gates Cambridge Scholars. Schwarzman Scholars. Knight-Hennessy Scholars. Names assigned to individuals receiving scholarships that aim to promote social leadership and transformation. It seems that these days more and more philanthropists are eager to fund these types of programmes across the world.

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Whether the institutions are located in Europe, Asia or North America, programmes are being developed to ensure today’s problems and challenges are investigated, researched and ultimately solved using all the tools at our disposal, including social entrepreneurial skills.

But what is the attraction for philanthropists? Why the interest in social leadership programmes? I believe the answer might be best summed up in a quote from Albert Einstein. He reportedly said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Truer words were most likely never spoken in relation to the proliferation of leadership programmes for social change throughout the world. This is the attraction for today’s philanthropists… solving the problems of today by thinking differently. They believe, and I would concur, that we can solve the problems of today by thinking as a social entrepreneur.

In 1998, the WK Kellogg Foundation discovered that the combination of wealth creation, wealth transfer and the openness of the non-profit sector to intersectoral and market-based approaches for social change could attract and unleash an unprecedented level of new financial resources within the philanthropic community.

The proliferation of social leadership programmes funded by forward-thinking philanthropists is a shining example of this prediction made almost 20 years ago.

Today’s philanthropists see educational institutions as the perfect place to begin and support this movement. They have long recognised that some of the greatest discoveries and changes in our thought processes have occurred or started within the higher education sector and are hoping for similar outcomes by providing scholarships for students in social leadership or social entrepreneurship programmes.


So what is a social entrepreneur? At first glance, the term can seem like an oxymoron and I would concur that the term can be a bit misleading. However, the phrase social entrepreneur is attracting a lot of attention these days, not only from philanthropists but also in the business and non-profit worlds.

As a point of reference regarding the penetration of this term into our consciousness and work, Forbes magazine annually publishes a listing of social entrepreneurs in their '30 Under 30' section which always attracts a lot of attention. If you haven’t checked this out, you should; problems are being solved daily by social entrepreneurs.

It may seem as if social entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurship are a new phenomenon. However, a quick look at history shows social entrepreneurs have been around for centuries.

As I say in my book Transformational Philanthropy: Entrepreneurs and nonprofits: “They [social entrepreneurs] are individuals with big ideas whose influence resulted in the reconstruction of whole social and economic systems. They identify and solve social problems on a large scale.

"They are change agents for society, forcing us to think differently about a problem or situation. Through their efforts, social entrepreneurs allow us to view things with a different lens. They work to transform a situation, people or society.

“While we think this is a relatively new phenomenon, if you do a simple Internet search you will find people from the 19th century such as Florence Nightingale, John Muir, Dr Maria Montessori, Susan B Anthony and Frederick Law Olmsted listed and viewed as social entrepreneurs. These were individuals who made a difference both short and long term.”

Tackling the big social issues

And I would advocate that this is what today’s philanthropists are hoping to achieve in funding the various leadership programmes throughout the world focused on social change. They are funding the next generation of leaders, encouraging them to use smart business models as well as non-profit best practice to solve today’s social and societal problems, including issues such as homelessness, hunger, pollution, unemployment and the big one, poverty.

The skills learned, connections made, networks established and thoughts developed by participating in one of these social leadership programmes is often unparalleled at other institutions of higher education. These programmes help participants apply business models to solve today’s societal problems.

The social entrepreneurship movement historically focused on issues such as education, social justice and equality, the environment and health, trying to align and solve or resolve them by importing a business enterprise model.

It is worth noting that there is a clear difference between business entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. At first glance, the primary distinction between business entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs might be seen as the ‘profit’ component. The business entrepreneur focuses on seeking the greatest possible profit for the product or service they are providing while a social entrepreneur will focus on finding or increasing a social value in return for products or services provided.

But it should be noted that the business entrepreneur and social entrepreneur are alike in that both identify a niche in the marketplace that is not being served and find a way to service it.

Often it is said that social entrepreneurs can identify solutions where others see only problems. They believe in that old adage that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime… translation – he will be able to take care of himself.

Social leadership programmes are creating a generation of leaders who will help people and societies in determining and defining how they take care of themselves. Individuals affected by their actions will indeed know how to fish.

Lisa M Dietlin is the Founder of the Institute of Transformational Philanthropy.