#NCVS Panel on Social Entrepreneurship


At last week’s opening of the National Conference on Volunteering and Service (NCVS), our founder participated on a panel that offered some unique insights on social entrepreneurship. The conference – which is an annual convening of nonprofit and business leaders and is the world’s largest gathering on the topic of volunteerism and community service – kicked off Wednesday with this panel, “Community Revitalization Through Social Entrepreneurship”. The session began with a keynote by Bill Shore, the founder and CEO of Share Our Strength. Bill shared how SOS began in 1984 with a small cash advance from a credit card and today works directly with governors and other leaders across the country to end youth hunger by 2015 through their No Kid Hungry campaign. He emphasized that for any social sector organization to be successful, it must make investments in its people and infrastructure as well as pursue big goals.

Following the keynote, Lisa Hall, CEO of Calvert Foundation, introduced panelists and began the discussion. Joining our founder Darius Graham, on the panel were Nick Vilelle, founder of Cause, and Ross Baird, founder of Village Capital. Here are some key takeaways and insights from Darius:

Q: How do you define social entrepreneurship?

Darius: DC Social Innovation Project defines social entrepreneurship as tackling a social problem in an organized, structured way. This may mean creating a for-profit company with a significant social mission, or creating a non-profit organization. In either case it involves combining one’s passion and expertise, and building an organization to channel resources toward solving a social problem. Clara Barton is a great example of a social entrepreneur because she didn’t stop at doing the great work of being a nurse and humanitarian, but she built the American Red Cross as an organization that would enable her work to scale and continue for generations to come.

Q: Why do you think there’s such a growing interest in social entrepreneurship, especially from the Millennial generation?

Darius: I think it has a lot to do with the fact that our world is much more connected now and we are a bit more aware of the suffering and challenges that others face. Further, Millennials have come of age at a time where newer organizations like tech start-ups have changed the way we live, and so we have an interest in applying that innovative mindset to problems our society has faced for a long time but that traditional organizations may not have been able to solve.

Q: Is social entrepreneurship/innovation just a fad or is there something meaningful there?

Darius: I think we will continue to see people thinking creatively about how to address social issues. Given limited resources – especially from traditional funding sources such as grants – individuals, communities, and governments will all have to think about how to create programs and use sources to tackle our problems in a smarter and more efficient way.

Q: What does social innovation look like in your work? What is the standard for something to be innovative?

Darius: For DC Social Innovation Project, we don’t have a bright line rule as to what is innovative or any specific criteria that an applicant would have to meet in order to be considered innovative. We do, however, specifically state that we are looking for projects that are bold, unusual, and have the potential to disrupt the problem it seeks to address. We further state that we are not looking for traditional projects like health fairs and community gardens (even though those projects can have an impact). In practice, we most often see social innovation as combining different methods of addressing a problem and consolidating them into one program. For example, our grantee Aya Community Markets is a social innovation in our view because it is not only a community market bringing fresh produce to low-income communities, but it also engages youth so they learn about entrepreneurship and business skills, AND it provides an opportunity for residents to vend their own homemade items – giving them a platform to start or grow a small business. So this layered approach is what we see most often and how we broadly identify social innovation.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

Darius: When we talk about social entrepreneurship we almost always focus on the individual entrepreneur. But for each entrepreneur, there are many people in a variety of roles working with him/her to make great things happen. So it’s important for people to remember that even if they aren’t the social entrepreneur, there is a role they can play in this sector, whether as a volunteer, donor/investor, board member, etc. We need people in all of these roles to make this important work possible. Find a cause or organization you care about, reach out, and get involved.


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