Engaging governments- for social entrepreneurs

Democracy does not redistribute wealth neither does it bring about rapid change. Its power is in delivering stability to country systems.

Prof. Ian Shapiro

Yale University
Image credit: http://www.news.yale.edu

Should social entrepreneurs have any interest in the nature of politics and governance in their countries? Should they just focus on their entrepreneurship work and isolate themselves from having a say in how governance is run in their countries?

Social entrepreneurs are very important in helping their communities choose good political leaders because of the credibility they enjoy within their societies. It is therefore imperative for social entrepreneurs to be politically engaged in helping their communities choose governments that support civil liberties, personal property rights and economic systems that aid entrepreneurship innovation.

Social entrepreneurs should be cautious of political leaders that tip their countries toward state ownership of enterprises and whose policies stifle the private sector. They should also serve as restraining voices to governments that allow unbridled capitalism and profiteering at the expense of the vulnerable and the environment.

Once governments have been chosen, social entrepreneurs can use their inventiveness to help these governments bring about small changes in the lives of the very poor. For example, they could set up garbage removal ventures that clean up slums and provide employment within these communities. The visible cleanliness and employment that results in these areas will help keep faith in the political process and reduce the potential for violence by the dissatisfied that may collapse the system.

Social entrepreneurs can also leverage their influence to bring about competition in politics. Just as business prospers and innovates because of competition, governance too can benefit if governments change from one political party to another. It is the responsibility of social entrepreneurs to ensure that they influence the majority who win elections at any one time to make space for the minority through the formation of coalitions. Remember your role is to keep faith in the system.

Social entrepreneurs can help create political coalitions to effect change particularly in political systems controlled by dictatorships or one-party states. To do this,

a) Reach out to diverse groups to join the movement:

Keep the groups together in tandem in the coalition by defining proximate goals e.g. eliminate corruption in parliament.

b) Ensure there are multiple benefits derivable by the groups that join the movement:

Remember self-interest rules and you need to create multiple benefits for those who join you to remain with you.

c) Develop a compelling narrative:

   Your narrative should help those who join aspire to a transcendent intrinsic benefit e.g. service to God or helping others.      This compelling narrative binds diverse groups even more strongly than any personal benefits can.

image credit: http://www.irishmanabroad.com

Once change is effected, social entrepreneurs can engage with those in government to develop and implement projects that deliver social impact through entrepreneurship. To deliver on these projects, the following steps should be followed-

a) Engage with humility:

Approach those in government with your idea humbly. Do not send in your proposal saying you have already developed a solution. Structure it in a manner that says that what you have is a suggestion and that you are seeking to implement it in conjunction with the government in order to discover what really works.

b) Conduct hyperlocal observations:

Hyperlocal observations are those observations you make while watching how the current system that you seek to change currently operates.

How do the actors in the system interact and why do they do what they do?

Identify how your proposal changes elements of these interactions and how it can be embedded with the least resistance from system actors.

For you to be successful and scale rapidly, you need to engage ‘leverage hubs’ in the system. Leverage hubs are actors in the systems that interface with all other system actors. They are typically system integrators who stabilize the system. For example in healthcare, leverage hubs are typically nurses.

You need to focus on obtaining the buy in of leverage hubs in order to succeed quickly.

c) Use existing system resources:

See how you can use especially underutilized resources in the system to lower start up costs. Ensure you deliver your services within the target community to enable easy access and distribution for wider impact. See how you can use technology to standardize your offering across different communities.

image credit: http://www.timoelliott.com

d) Stay open:

Avoid the ownership mentality rather focus on gaining alignment with stakeholders. Give out your idea for others to experiment with and focus on collaborations and partnerships in order to achieve scale and drive acceptance.

e) Simplify:

Present the solution in simple language. Use a lot of easily understood examples especially of other people or governments who are implementing a similar solution. People are less resistant if you show them that others are already achieving success with ideas similar to yours.

f) Pilot test and prove outcomes:

Pilot test the idea on a small scale with the intention to achieve specific clearly defined outcomes.

Social entrepreneurs should know that governments hardly move quickly on projects and it is therefore important for them to keep on building broad network collaborations to keep up pressure on public sector decision makers.

Engaging with governments for social change requires patience, resilience and a healthy dose of optimism. Social entrepreneurs need governments as much as governments need social entrepreneurs- when both groups work well together, the lives of the most vulnerable improve and countries become more stable and prosperous.

*This article is part of the training materials I have developed for my Mandela Washington Fellowship Mentorship series. It is designed to prepare participants for the ‘Startup Day’  events which will be held across Nigeria in 2015.


  1. Ian Shapiro, Sterling Professor of Political Science, Henry R. Luce Director, MacMillan Center, & Professor (Adjunct) Law School, Yale University, USA, http://www.yale.edu/macmillan/shapiro/index.htm
  1. Rodrigo Canales, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Yale University, http://som.yale.edu/rodrigo-canales
  1. Christopher Udry, Henry J Heinz ll Prof Economics and Inst Soc Pol Studies, Yale University, http://economics.yale.edu/people/christopher-udry

Special gratitude to Michael Cappello and his team of the Yale World Fellows who organized a fantastic 6-weeks executive business leadership program that redefined how I think about and conduct business today.

Special thanks also to Barack Obama and the people of the United States of America for organizing the young African leaders initiative aimed at empowering young business leaders from Africa to conduct business ethically and in a socially sustainable and responsible way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.