Eight months ago, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the life of every single person around the globe was upended. Since then, governments have struggled to contend not only with a public health crisis, but with the economic fallout. Yet there have been rays of hope—often driven by innovative thinkers and doers looking not just to address urgent needs, but to transform entire systems. In other words: social entrepreneurs.
The world needs social entrepreneurs right now—hyper-practical, disruptive leaders who discard traditional practice to tackle gigantic social problems. COVID-19 is a holistic emergency, just like climate change, gender inequality, racial injustice, and a whole range of other systemic issues that expose the cracks throughout the foundations of modern society. The impacts go well beyond health—to unemployment, food insecurity, economic disparities, inadequate education systems, and more. We stand at the nexus of multiple, colliding crises; thus, we need to invest in converging solutions. Who better to find and implement those solutions than social entrepreneurs?
First, social entrepreneurs are well positioned to address gaps in the market and to reach constituents that governments can or will not. Economically or socially disadvantaged communities are the hardest hit by this pandemic; but that same disadvantaged position makes it difficult for government relief and services to penetrate—making social enterprises even more vital. My own organization, Root Capital, works in the most remote communities of Africa, Latin America, and Indonesia. Working with socially-minded enterprises across our global network, over the last several months we’ve been able to deliver services and much-needed supplies (face masks, soap, medicine, and more) to hundreds of thousands of rural families. Similarly, Amazon Conservation Team is filling a public service vacuum in highly remote indigenous communities of the Amazon. Among other things, they are translating public health information into native languages and sharing it through radio and WhatsApp, channels that they know indigenous communities utilize. Social entrepreneurs are ready, able, and willing to reach underserved groups—in many cases, they already have reach into these communities. By leveraging those connections, we can help flatten the disproportionate impacts of this pandemic.
Second, social entrepreneurs can address the secondary and tertiary challenges of the pandemic. While governments concentrate on mitigating the highest-level health and economic shocks, social entrepreneurs can innovate solutions to all of the cascading impacts, from employment to education. For example, YouthBuild USA tackles a systemic challenge: the estimated 4.5 million young adults aged 16-24 in America that were neither in work nor in school even before COVID-19 hit. Between February and June of this year, the rate of “disconnected” youth (out of work and out of school) more than doubled, making YouthBuild’s work even more vital. According to John Valverde, YouthBuild USA’s president and CEO, young people who graduated in 2008 during the Great Recession “were just starting to recover when COVID-19 hit.” Projections already indicated that these youth had lost a third of their lifetime earning potential. Now, says Valverde, “not only will they be further set back, but young people graduating in 2020 will experience the same, if not worse, impacts. That’s why YouthBuild has shifted our model to focus not just on building jobs and skills, but on the mental health and wellness of our students—and on creating strong community connections that can help young people weather the storm of COVID-19.”
Citizen Schools, another social enterprise focused on young adults, is tackling the pandemic-related challenge of students’ education and wellbeing in the age of distance learning. According to Emily McCann, CEO of Citizen Schools, “It’s estimated that under-served students will sustain a 9-12 month learning loss in 2020—something that will have long-term impacts on our children. Citizen Schools is mobilizing volunteers to offer additional support to middle school students across the country in ways that are engaging, joyful, and skill building.” The organization’s COVID-19-related innovations also include virtual “apprenticeships” in which students work with volunteers to solve authentic community problems in small groups; one-on-one and small group tutoring in English, math, and science; and Career Connection Conversations that allow students to indulge their curiosity and build their social network.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, social entrepreneurs can help us rebuild better in the wake of COVID-19. Most of our leaders have been focused on putting out fires, rather than solving long-term issues. Social entrepreneurs have the stamina to change broken systems. Before the pandemic hit, they were already tackling systemic gaps and challenges—not just the ones mentioned above, but other issues that have come to the fore in recent months: racial justice, gender equality, responsible supply chains, affordable healthcare, financial inclusion, and more. These challenges exacerbate and are exacerbated by crises like COVID-19. We know, for instance, that long-term targets like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are now at risk. The pandemic has pushed 100 million people into extreme poverty, and 132 million are projected to face acute hunger. Social entrepreneurs, by definition, are focused on building a better society and reforming the status quo through bold action. What might happen if we gave them the resources they need to reimagine our collective future?
It’s hard to estimate the exact size of the funding gap for social entrepreneurship, but we know it’s significant, particularly within communities that are chronically underfunded (both in the US and abroad). Like other for-profit and nonprofit organizations, social enterprises face increased financial risk because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But given the potential impact on a range of challenges intensified by our current crisis, capital providers should increase their support for social entrepreneurs, especially in low-income countries and communities. This upfront investment is well worth the potential for transformative change. With support, social entrepreneurs can not only help us survive this current crisis, but create a better world.