One of the most frequently heard buzzwords in today’s nonprofit sector is “social entrepreneurship”; for those new to the term, in his book, The Search for Social Entrepreneurialism, NYU Professor Paul Light describes social entrepreneurs as those who “seek sustainable, large-scale change with pattern-breaking ideas in what or how government, nonprofits, and businesses do to address significant social problems.”
Many reading this blog post are likely social entrepreneurs or aspire to be so. After all, social entrepreneurs tend to be disproportionally young. For example, in one nationwide funding competition for social entrepreneurs, 63% of the applicants were between 18 and 35 years old. There are several reasons why this may be: two prominent ideas are that young people aren’t as attached to the old ways of doing things and that they they have fewer obligations so they can truly devote their time to a cause.
Rethinking Social Entrepreneur Support
With this increasing attention on social entrepreneurship comes an industry of support. Graduate schools have classes and conferences on social entrepreneurship and foundations have built up considerable resources to help the social entrepreneurs that they fund. These support methods tend to be technical in nature: how to write fundraise grants, be financial sustainable, attract media attention to your cause, connect with peers who also have good ideas, and so on.
For obvious reasons, social entrepreneurs have welcomed these essential and helpful support networks. However, my advice to the young social entrepreneurs is that as you develop as a professional, you should also seek out skill-building in two complimentary fields: management and leadership. These two terms may seem similar, and they are usually taken on by the same people in an organization, but there is an important distinction: leadership is about influencing the behavior and attitudes of people around you to achieve your goals, while management is about productivity and organizing resources (most notably human resources).
Leadership and management are much less technical than other areas of public sector professional development, but like any other skill, they can be learned and improved upon. The importance of learning about leadership and management can not be overstated, especially for young social entrepreneurs that have founded their own start-ups, seek to, or who are in prominent positions in others’ organizations. The management and leadership skills of senior staff have been tied to a variety of positive benefits in nonprofits, including lower levels of stress in the office, higher levels of trust between staff, and the ability to weather significant organizational changes. In a study by Professor John Thompson also found that for socially entrepreneurial ventures these skills have bottom-line function by ensuring that “resources are deployed efficiently and effectively.”
Getting the Support You Need
Most leaders of socially entrepreneurial organizations develop leadership and management skills over years of working, but for young social entrepreneurs on-the-job experience will be much more limited. There, are a handful of accessible ways to build these skills, and one of the most effective is to find a mentor: in a survey of 16 social entrepreneurs honored by the Ashoka Foundation, almost all of them recommended that the next generation of social entrepreneurs should find mentors in their work. Michelle Moran wrote a fantastic YNPN-NYC blog piece just a few weeks ago about how to create a meaningful mentoring experience.
Of course, there are always leadership and management workshops, courses, and coaches available. These programs are usually not cheap, but the right one could be vital to the success of your organization. However, many nonprofit leaders who agree that leadership and management training would benefit their organizations avoid taking part because of the cost. This is a shame, and young social entrepreneurs have to advocate for more of an emphasis on this kind of training. So if you are working in a socially entrepreneurial organization, look beyond technical support and find out what leadership and management professional development options are available to you. If you are being given technical support by a foundation, donor, or superior, explain how leadership and management support should be prioritized as well and will be worth the investment.
So what do you think? If you are a young social entrepreneur, how have you developed as a manager and a leader, and what has it meant for your work? Even if you’re not in the field of social entrepreneurship, what advice can you give about being a better leader and manager?
Micah Goldfus has been working at, volunteering for, and studying NYC-area nonprofits since he moved to the city in 2006. He is a self-proclaimed nonprofit management nerd. Read all of Micah’s posts for YNPN-NYC.