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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.

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But in the real world, social entrepreneurs seem to think in terms of everything except sacrifice. "I've interviewed several hundred social entrepreneurs over the last 15 years," says David Bornstein, author of "How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas," "and the thing that struck me is how little they think about sacrifice, and how little their lives are about sacrifice, and how much their lives are about really doing something that gives them extraordinary joy and satisfaction when they're successful."

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Whether they're fulfilled visionaries or ascetic volunteers doesn't change the ways in which they make a difference, of course. Changing the system has a lot of prerequisites: A good idea, financial and human resources, and a will of steel, to name a few. But most important may be the often elusive chutzpah.

"You see the world as changeable because you can change it. The vision of self and vision of world are related," says Drayton. "If you come from a background [where] everyone says 'You can't, you can't, you can't' – you won't. You won't have practiced it. You won't have defined yourself that way."

That self-definition can have roots in several places – school, home, social circle – but it may also be especially American. Alexis de Tocqueville famously analyzed the American tendency for helping one's community, and though social scientists like Robert Putnam have alleged that our communitarian impulses are dying off, the United States still fosters a unique form of social engagement. "The unique thing about a voluntary association," says Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, "is that you don't have the economic or political power to fire people or put them in jail. You have to elicit a voluntary contribution, so that requires a lot more reference to core values."

It also brings in money.

"Our tradition is extremely generous," says Amitai Etzioni, director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The US outdonates each of the other 11 developed countries listed in the Charities Aid Foundation's annual comparative giving survey; American donations total the equivalent of 2 percent of gross domestic product, more than twice that of Britain, the second-highest giver.

For every extreme do-gooder, there are probably – thankfully – uncounted others who want to see social change, sharing their talents and time at a pace most of us can handle. There are, Dr. Etzioni says, "millions of people who make a contribution despite the fact that they have many other duties ... [by] going and bringing orphans into our home, doing community service, teaching people to read, being a pal. There are hundreds of ways we do that."