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Telling Stories to Change the World: Social Entreprneurship and a Network Proposition.

by Scott Edward Anderson

My children have always loved stories. When my oldest, now 10, was little, I told stories to him every night before he went to sleep. He came to rely on these stories and I needed to become more creative with each telling. Soon the stories had recurring characters, including his stuffed bear, Babe, or "Binky, the Fifth Beatle." His favorite stories were about Babe getting lost—all true stories: left behind in a blueberry patch, on a hike in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska, where we lived, or in the Kauai airport on vacation. Babe was always safe, found, or delivered back into my son's arms by me or by strangers.

My 3-year-old twins have continued their brother's love of story. During a recent camping trip they started telling stories to us, little adventure stories featuring themselves and the rest of the family. Storytelling is now an important part of their daily lives, and their stories are becoming more elaborate, filling with details from their lives.

Our experience bears out research by American psychologist Jerome Bruner, author of the influential essay "The Narrative Construction of Reality." Bruner has documented that children, as early as two years old, show that "they understand the stories that their families tell them, and they start to tell their own stories, and in particular start to tell stories to themselves as part of their first efforts to make sense of their lives." Indeed, this supports the notion that we may be hard-wired to tell stories, as some scientists believe.

What is it about stories and storytelling that seems to resonate with all of us? Why are stories such an important part of who we are as a species and how we view the world? It may help to look at what stories are.


What is Storytelling?

A story is a narrative account of a real or imagined event or events. Stories build worlds and define worldviews. Sharing experience through stories, we pass on accumulated wisdom, beliefs, and values. Through stories we explain how and why things are, and we define our role and purpose.

"Stories are the building blocks of knowledge, the foundation of memory and learning," according to the National Storytelling Network. "Stories connect us with our humanness and link past, present, and future by teaching us to anticipate the possible consequences of our actions."

Think of our earliest time as a species, as hunter-gatherers. The stories we told were about the best hunting places or where plentiful berries could be found. Later, we told each other stories about planting crops and which crops grew best in what climate, soil, or aspect of the sun. We evolved as a species through stories and we are grounded in stories. Storytelling may be a tradition as old as human communication itself.

Stories connect people to other people and to place, to the land and sea. Like the songlines of the Aborigines, stories map a place in a way beyond symbols and geography.

Internationally renowned storyteller Anne Pellowski, in The World of Storytelling, suggests that storytelling is rooted in play. Over time, storytelling became a way of passing on religious beliefs and rituals, of telling the history of a people, and to educate the next generation. It has been suggested that one of the earliest records of the storytelling tradition can be found in a papyrus of tales told by the sons of the pyramid builder to Cheops, their father.

A story usually consists of a narrative, which is a way of ordering events and thoughts in a coherent sequence. Narrative, in psychologist Jerome Bruner's theory, illustrates how the mind structures its sense of reality through various "cultural products, like language and other symbolic systems."

Stories about change are narratives of conflict and hope, problems and solutions. A conflict of some kind is set up that leads the reader to hope. And telling these stories helps others make change. In the words of award-winning journalist and author David Bornstein, stories help "a person form the belief that it is possible to make the world a better place. Those who act on that belief spread it to others. They are highly contagious. Their stories must be told." [Emphasis mine.] This, too, would corroborate Bruner's theory that stories are cumulative and that new stories build from older ones.


Making Sense of the World and Making Change

Former World Bank executive Steve Denning tells a story about change in Storytelling: Passport to the 21st Century. The World Bank was one of the most successful lending institutions in the world. Yet, though it had programs in many countries, it was facing tremendous competition.

"A whole set of private banks had emerged that were lending far more than the World Bank could ever lend," Denning writes. "And they were doing it faster and cheaper and with less conditionality than the World Bank. There were even world-wide campaigns to close the World Bank down. There was a political slogan chanted by protesters: Fifty years is enough! In fact, our future as a lending organization was not looking too bright."

The problem, as Denning saw it, was that the World Bank was "drowning in information. We were spending a ton of money on it and getting very little in the way of benefits."

Denning's solution was to encourage the World Bank to share its knowledge. "Over the previous fifty years, we had acquired immense expertise as to what worked and what didn’t work in the field of development," Denning tells it. "We had all this know-how on how to make development happen in countries around the world. But it was very hard to get access to this expertise and know-how. It was very hard to find it."

Denning determined that he needed examples to convince management that knowledge-sharing was a strategy that could help improve its core business. So he told a story about a task team working with the highways department in Pakistan. Highways in that country were crumbling as fast as they were being built. The government needed a solution or it would face a crisis. Spreading the word via the Internet, the team found possible solutions in South Africa, New Zealand, and elsewhere, and quickly shared those stories with the government—leaving the officials to draw their own conclusions. This was not your father's World Bank in action. (Read the full story.)

Suddenly, Denning had the attention of management. "And they started to think: 'Well, that’s remarkable how quickly we could respond to that kind of situation in that out-of-the-way part of the world. Imagine if we had that kind of capability, not just in the highways community, but all across the organization. Imagine if the whole World Bank functioned like this,’" Denning writes. He found that storytelling is "an extremely powerful tool to get major change in this large change-resistant organization."

As Denning says, "What we are looking at here is the phenomenon that Carl Jung pointed out, namely, that there are some parts of the human self that are not subject to the laws of time and space. And storytelling, the telling of, and the listening to, [is simply] one of those things." Storytelling helps us connect to and make sense of the world. And with that understanding comes a tremendous power of emergent change, of seeing what is possible.


A Part of My Story

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of making a difference in the world. I didn’t like the way things worked and I didn't value a lot of the things our society valued. I was an idealist. I joined political movements, explored spiritual realms, and created an alternative story through art. It turned out that these many paths were really one. And while there were often stumbling blocks, false hopes, and blind alleys, I kept being reminded of something the artist Man Ray once said, "The streets are full of admirable craftsmen, but so few practical dreamers."

Today, I consider myself a practical dreamer, which may simply be a more mature idealist. But my story has been built by many divergent routes along one path, choices made and chances taken. I'm more of an "and" not "or" person. Consequently, much of the story of who I am seems contradictory. I am a poet who wishes he had an MBA. I believe in free trade and I want it to also be fair trade. I am a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. I believe globalization is inevitable, yet I also believe we can create a more enlightened globalization that acknowledges, even fosters a better environment and a better place for all people. Is it too much to ask? Perhaps, but I can't help myself; that is the nature of being a practical dreamer.

Practical dreamers are coming up with solutions every day and their stories must be told. My theme song has long been like John Lennon's song, "Imagine:"

You may say I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one.
I hope some day you'll join us,
and the world will live as one.


Practical Dreamers: Social Entrepreneurs and Changemakers

“Social entrepreneur" is a fairly new term for a phenomena that has actually been around for quite some time. Florence Nightingale, Mahatma Ghandi, and even Ben Franklin would be considered social entrepreneurs today. Indeed, many social innovators and change agents can be considered social entrepreneurs. Let's take a look at some definitions.

David Bornstein in his book How to Change the World defines social entrepreneurs as "people with new ideas to address major problems who are relentless in pursuit of their visions, people who will not take 'no' for an answer, who will not give up until they have spread their ideas as far as they possibly can." Bornstein profiles a number of social entrepreneurs from around the world, individuals who have helped bring electricity to remote parts of their country, helped low-income high school students get into college, or developed home-based care models for AIDS patients.

Many of Bornstein's subjects are associated with Ashoka, the leading organization investing in social entrepreneurs. They relate that the "job of a social entrepreneur is to recognize when a part of society is stuck and to provide new ways to get it unstuck. He or she finds what is not working and solves the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution and persuading entire societies to take new leaps. Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry."

"The idea of 'social entrepreneurship' has struck a responsive chord," J. Gregory Dees, adjunct professor of social entrepreneurship and nonprofit management at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, wrote in his 1998 article on the subject. "It is a phrase well suited to our times. It combines the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline, innovation, and determination commonly associated with, for instance, the high-tech pioneers of Silicon Valley. The time is certainly ripe for entrepreneurial approaches to social problems. Many governmental and philanthropic efforts have fallen far short of our expectations. Major social sector institutions are often viewed as inefficient, ineffective, and unresponsive. Social entrepreneurs are needed to develop new models for a new century."

In short, social entrepreneurs are changemakers, agents of change who pursue new, hopeful models to make a difference in our world.


Stories of Social Entrepreneurship in Action

On my web log, The Green Skeptic, I've begun to tell stories of social entrepreneurs, of remarkable people and the extraordinary change they are making.

There's Iqbal Quadir who recognized an issue in his home country of Bangladesh—lack of access to phones and its impact on health and poverty—and brought cell phone access to women in poor villages, thereby creating businesses and access to markets, and what is now the largest telephone company in that country.

There is Kiva International, a micro-lending institution that is using the power of the web to connect entrepreneurs in Africa and Latin America with potential investors.

And Uday Khemka, whose family owns and operates the Sun Capital Group in India and the U.K., and who, as one of the World Economic Forum's young global leaders, saw former Vice President Al Gore give his presentation on global warming and is now dedicating himself to the issue of climate change.

I have also been scanning widely for other stories being told elsewhere, such as the story of Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (aka "Dr. V"), who recently passed away. He created the Aravind Eye Care System to eradicate needless blindness in rural India through comprehensive eye care services. And stories about companies such as CEMEX that provides affordable construction materials and access to credit for people below the poverty line in Mexico.

These are hopeful stories that need be told, and told widely.


New Stories of Hope through Social Entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurship is an approach that is well-suited to the 21st century. However, Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka, has recognized a conundrum. On the one hand, the so-called "citizen sector" has been growing at a rate two-and-a-half times greater than the rest of society; on the other hand, the financial model has not kept pace.

The trouble is what I call "the whim of altruism." The kindness of strangers (and, okay, a few of your organization's closest friends) only gets you so far, then the resources run out or the donors move on. Your organization grows too big for the initial start-up investments preferred by many foundations or governments. Foundations change their focus—often a seemingly whimsical exercise in itself—as their newly developed strategies become narrower and narrower. Or your organization's success breeds complacency: there is little risk-taking or new ideas.

"Business," argues Drayton, "could not have succeeded as it has without the highly responsive, creative, diverse financial institutions that serve it." Whether so-called "angel investors," a concept that has not yet been around for two decades, venture capitalists, investment bankers, commercial lenders, advisers, brokers, what have you, institutions have evolved to meet the rapidly changing needs of the business sector.

Why isn't this the case with social ventures? Drayton posits that "the resulting gap, which is growing wider as accelerating change on the operating side outpaces innovations in social investment, is probably the single biggest threat to the successful maturation of the citizen sector."

To address this dilemma, Drayton suggests forming a new financial services industry, one that serves the growing needs of the sector and its entrepreneurs just as similar models serve other businesses.

His concept: provide a range of investors to support new ideas, provide "medium- to long-term investments to test and refine the idea, learn how to market it, and build an institution and movement," as well as ensure its long-term viability. This, according to Drayton, will keep social entrepreneurs from "spending most of their time chasing many small, short-term, partial grants" that may in fact force them to pursue "often conflicting goals and visions."

Applying business models to civil society and investing in social entrepreneurs is an approach whose time has come. Steve Denning's World Bank situation is a not unusual one—large institutions stagnate and become complacent. And they are not always open to change.

Global issues such as poverty, biodiversity loss, and climate change, however, will not wait for large institutions to adapt. There isn't enough time. We must become more nimble and responsive to local and global change or, to use The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's phrase, "glocal" concerns. The world is changing at such a rapid pace. It is time for knowledge-sharing to help accelerate change through inspiring stories of what is possible.

There are many people doing amazing work in the world. And their stories are very different than the one that is too often told, the one that breeds fear and encourages anxiety and hopelessness. We have too much to lose to let that story continue. We must begin to tell new stories of hope and become part of the transformation. What can we do to foster the good work and inspire others by telling the stories that need to be told?


Moving from Dialogue to Action: A Proposition

A friend and colleague of mine, management consultant Cam Danielson, suggests a possible solution: find the stories out there and circulate them widely.

His idea is to form a kind of "council" of scouts and action teams to scan, identify, and foster innovative solutions to localized problems—much like Denning's Pakistan highways story, where a small team of seekers reached out to a larger network to understand potential options through the stories they collected from the experience of others. Only this effort might be more formalized, structured, and expanded. In other words, to create a network of story tellers who are moving from dialogue to action.

The network approach represents a new critical path for change. In his book, High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them, J.F. Rischard, the World Bank's vice-president for Europe, suggests that the future is in "network-like organizations, [where] people won't be merely information transmitters—they will be empowered assets, acting independently." In such organizations, Rischard offers, "Information will stay at the level where it can readily be used to adapt to changing needs."

This network approach could have a ripple effect by inspiring others to start a new venture or to keep at it in the face of adversity. The stories will be examples of the successes and fortitude of others.

In my own case, I recognize the impact such stories can have. As I've watched my own institution grow larger and seemingly less efficient and entrepreneurial, I've begun to realize that there are many other models out there, other ways of approaching problems. We must try these other ways. Often, what seems to hold us back is lack of access to the good stories. Information, as in Denning's experience with the World Bank, gets in the way. We need stories and their resonant power to make the kind of change we need today.

To that end, I've begun to search for ways to connect people to stories of change, hoping that others will want to join the conversation, become searchers or scouts or seekers to uncover other stories, share their own stories, and share with each other in the larger, flatter world offered by the Internet.

A colleague turned me on to a social networking web site called gather.com, which may foster such dialogue. I've created a place for social entrepreneurs to begin building a network. Thus far, we have a dozen members. And I've heard from dozens of others from around the world, as far away from where I sit (in the northeastern U.S.) as Japan, India, and the U.K.

Then Seth Godin told me about his new venture, Squidoo, which consists of "lenses" built around a wide variety of interests. I created the "Changemakers" lens on Squidoo as a place to pull together links to resources for folks who are considering becoming a social entrepreneur or for investors who are looking to fund such work.

My hope is we can create a larger community of searchers, scouts, and seekers—of connectors. That we'll share the stories of remarkable people who are making change happen every day and thereby embolden others to make change.



My twins told me a story at bed time the other night. Each one told essentially the same story from his or her own perspective, one after the other. There was some elaboration and some feedback from and to each other. Basically, the story went like this: We are walking in a forest and we find a little bear. The bear says to us, "I need to find my home." And the twins each take turns telling the bear how to get home, until finally one of them decides the bear is already home and it is the twins who need to return home. "That is all the story," one of them says. "Good night, Papa."

But I know it is only the beginning of the story. We are at the cusp of a great potential transformation, becoming the change we want to effect, sharing our stories full of hope. I want to be part of that story.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.


Scott Edward Anderson is an award-winning poet, writes The Green Skeptic blog, manages the Changemakers lens on Squidoo and the Social Entrepreneurship group on Gather.com, and works for a global conservation organization.
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Ashoka: Building a Competitive Citizen Sector

Changemakers Lens on Squidoo

The Green Skeptic

How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas

The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship

National Storytelling Network

Social Entrepreneurs on Gather.com

Storytelling: Passport to the 21st Century


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