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Difference Maker

Extreme do-gooders – what makes them tick?

Five extraordinary social entrepreneurs talk about their defining moments - when the urge to change the world gathered such force they couldn't ignore it.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 7, 2009

Geoffrey Canada, education reformer and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, holds Amaru Ponville, his ‘adopted grandchild.’

Kristen Olson/ Special to The Christian Science Monitor


New York

Most people in the world, it's fair to say, want to do a little good. At the very least, we try to follow a kind of secular golden rule: Try to do no harm. But in our communities and around the world, there's a kind of person who takes all this further – to an extreme, even. They're called, most often, "social entrepreneurs," and some of them have become famous, at least in certain circles: Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is revered in do-good financial circles for pioneering microfinance, a lending system for the very poor. Some rub shoulders with the famous: Jody Williams, whose global campaign against land mines won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, found a fan in Britain's late Princess Diana. Others are treated like rock stars themselves: Mention Paul Farmer, the public-health innovator and subject of the bestseller "Mountains Beyond Mountains," and grown graduate students swoon like tweens at a boy band concert.

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From protecting our natural environment to improving our children's education to combating global poverty and disease, we've come to rely on extreme do-gooders to tackle the world's toughest problems. And they're happy to do so, even though their dedication will cost them in the long run. Few of them will make as much as they could in the private sector. They may lose a relationship with a loved one to their work, or miss their kids' big moments.

All of which raises the obvious: Why? What makes these people tick, and how do they sustain a lifetime of commitment to a change that might take generations to see?

"We call it a moment of obligation," says Lara Galinsky, of the Echoing Green Foundation, whose 471 fellows have raised more than $1 billion for their causes since 1987. "It's usually not a dramatic moment; it's a gathering of moments, but it's very clear. It's when something gathers such force that you can't ignore it."

It doesn't happen that often. There is only 1 social entrepreneur for every 10 million of the rest of us, according to calculations of Ashoka, an organization that funds social entrepreneurs around the world. Ashoka founder Bill Drayton bases his calculations on nearly 30 years' worth of seeking out the elusive combination of vision and passion that social entrepreneurs put into practice.

"The core defining element is that they simply cannot come to rest ... until their dream has become a new pattern across all of society," says Mr. Drayton. "This is very different from everyone else: the scholar or the artist expresses an idea, and they're happy. The manager ... make[s] the company work. The social worker, the professional help people ... make their lives better. None of that would remotely satisfy the social entrepreneur. Their job is to change the system."

Traditionally, we think of spending a lifetime struggling against "the system" as a noble sacrifice: Think Crystal Lee Jordan, who lost her mill job for trying to unionize her colleagues and whose story won Sally Field her first Oscar, as Norma Rae. Think Erin Brockovich, the legal secretary, immortalized by Julia Roberts, who threw her all into a case against a utility company for contamination of a community's water supply.