Social Entrepreneurs Are Change Masters

Wednesday, 2 April, 2008 - 08:36

Revolutionising Life on the PlanetJan BeetonWhat kinds of change do social entrepreneurs create?Most information defining the social entrepreneur seems to focus on the goodness they create for mankind

Revolutionising Life on the Planet

Jan Beeton

What kinds of change do social entrepreneurs create?

Most information defining the social entrepreneur seems to focus on the goodness they create for mankind and other life and the fact that they bring about social change. A question that really interests the writer about social entrepreneurship is, however, what kind of change is really needed to create a new world, and do most of the people we call social entrepreneurs really bring this about?

There are two different kinds of change which need to be looked at to explore the answers to my questions - First and Second Order Change.

First Order Change Shuffles Deckchairs on the Titanic

All that really changes is the view: how you see the same reality. The reality itself does not change. First Order change reshapes what is.  

Shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic didn’t stop it from sinking

First-order change is doing more - or less - of something we are already doing. In other words, we make an adjustment to the way things are, or the way we are as people. But things are still recognisable as the way they used to be, or people are much the same as they were. The characteristics of First-Order change are as follow:

  • It is always reversible (you can always go back to the way things were before the change);
  • Adjustments are made within the existing structure;
  • You can either do more or less of something;
  • Balance is restored;
  • It is non-transformational (more or less of the same);
  • New learning is not required (what we already know is added to, or adjusted); 
  • The old story can still be told.

“Trying to change a system by changing its content is called First Order Change. In this case, people try to change what an individual element does, try to reorganise a specific organisation, or change the people who work for an organisation. These types of change alter only the look of the system, not its actual behaviour. It is called "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." However you arrange the chairs, the ship will still sink.”

(Source: National Academy for Academic Leadership. First and Second Order Change)

Whereas many projects undertaken by ‘social entrepreneurs’ might make life better for the people they help, what really needs to be focused on is changing life’s realities themselves in fundamental ways that really make a difference for the better for many people. Otherwise all we are doing is sugar coating the same not so nice pill.
People who have made the world different

For the writer, this characteristic in itself does not make a social entrepreneur. Politicians, dictators, despots, war mongers made the world different, they did not necessarily make it better.

People who have made the world better

This for me also does not necessarily make a social entrepreneur. The following are examples of people who have made the world ‘better’ but they were not in my mind social entrepreneurs: 

  • Religious leaders;
  • Philosophers;
  • Philanthropists using their wealth for making life better for others;
  • Missionaries;
  • Charity and welfare activity leaders.  

So, who really is a social entrepreneur?

Like Merlin the wizard, the social entrepreneur, in my way of thinking, brings things into being that were not there before. That’s why I think we call such people entrepreneurs. We call them social entrepreneurs because the new things they create change life on the planet irreversibly for the benefit of all on it.

For example, the inventor who commercialised the Internet and invented the e-mail changed the world in a fundamental way. You and I and others all over the planet, rich and poor, benefit from that every day, communicating easily with other people and sources of knowledge globally, making life easier for all life forms.

Social entrepreneurs may make money out what they do, or not, this is not the key issue. We call social entrepreneurs by this name because they are inventors and innovators for life enhancement on the planet.  They break down mental as well as social barriers, bringing about new thinking, new ways of doing things that were not there before and new material realities which re-frame the world as a better place for all mankind and life forms to live in. 

Second order change transforms current realities and makes life in all its forms new as well as better

Often, we use the words ‘change’ and ‘transformation’ interchangeably - as if they were the same thing. But since they are two different words, it is probably right to conclude that they are not the same thing, but rather different aspects of the same thing. Whereas ‘change’ is more First Order (as talked about above), ‘transformation’ is Second Order, creating something completely new, something not seen before, for new circumstances in the future.  The process is irreversible. It is not possible to return to the way things were done before. Second Order change reframes what is (First Order change reshapes what is).

Some characteristics of Second Order Change are

  • It is a new way of seeing things;
  • It means ‘shifting gears’ to a new momentum (much like changing gears in a car); 
  • It can begin in the informal system (people start to do it first);
  • It means creating something quite different (a new context);
  • It requires new learning (existing knowledge cannot lead you there);
  • A new story is told.

High Impact Practices of Social Entrepreneurs Focusing on Second Order Change

  • They have an internal locus of control (they are people who move ideas, rather than people moved by ideas);
  • They seek out and exploit new things and new ways of doing things which were not known before;
  • They break free of existing structures;
  • They often combine existing resources in new ways;
  • They cross disciplinary boundaries (economic, environmental, societal);
  • They engage with the world in its wholeness; 
  • They share leadership and rarely take the credit;
  • They self-correct in order to serve and get results;
  • They solve many of the world's most intractable problems; 
  • They create systemic change on a national or international level, finding new solutions on a large scale.

Examples of Second Order Social EnterprisesEngineering

  • Delivery of solar energy to rural Brazil combining the environmental needs of the country with the economic needs of some of its poorest citizens.


  • Production of ethical food.


  • Creation of businesses in run-down neighbourhoods;
  • Generation of needed incomes accommodating social and environmental considerations;
  • Mobilisation of neglected and undervalued resources - people written off by the education system, derelict buildings - to address significant social needs left unmet by the state or the market;
  • Creation of hybrid enterprises that make money to do social good;
  • Establishing the fair trade and tourism movement;
  • Teaming up rich world micro-investors with entrepreneurs in the developing world.


  • Attendance by low-income and marginalised high school students at college.


  • Application of business methods to solve social problems;
  • Creation of venture philanthropy funded by the socially conscious super-rich;
  • Creating a voice for the poor and marginalised.

Leaders of NGOs, whilst helping mankind and other life on the planet, are not generally social entrepreneurs, according to this way of thinking, but rather benefactors of humanity and other life. They help people and other forms of life within existing systems.  

The world today is of course in urgent need of both humanitarians and social entrepreneurs.  For the writer, however, social entrepreneurs are the most sorely needed on a large scale right now to support a quantum leap into a new world order on the planet. 

Books and Articles Consulted

1. The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur, Charles Leadbeater.
2. How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, David Bornstein.
3. Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits (Jossey-Bass; October 2007 - Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant).

Jan Beeton is a developmental educator, trainer, mentor and Managing Consultant at QED Development Consulting.

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