How long has it been since you were surprised by hope? As you browsed the morning newspaper, when did you last feel a sense that the world was becoming a better place? That the forces propelling the future were on the right track? That the power of imagination was serving those with healing ideals rather than those with darker agendas? Overwhelmed as we are by images of bad news, it is easy to tacitly embrace the notion that humanity's only possible trajectory is downward.
But that simply is not true. The proof lies in your hands, in the pages that follow. Here you'll read about the winners of Fast Company and Monitor Group's second annual Social Capitalist Awards: 25 organizations that are using creativity, business smarts, and hard work to invent a brighter future. These social entrepreneurs are more than architects of change with grand, skyscraper-scale visions; they are general contractors of getting stuff done. They will surprise you with hope and delight you with results.
"Whatever our professions, we are all citizens, and we all care deeply about unmet social needs — which is precisely where social entrepreneurs make their essential contribution," says Mark Fuller, Monitor's chairman. "But good intentions are not enough. To put that vision into action, their efforts must meet the harsh test of performance, and their labors the demanding standards of accountability."
Consider the work of Endeavor Global, a New York-based nonprofit that seeds economic growth in developing countries by supporting the work of large-scale entrepreneurs. In 2002, 97 companies funded by Endeavor generated $332 million in revenue and created 8,562 jobs in Latin America.
Or take Social Venture Partners, which has invented a powerful model of philanthropy that now operates in 23 cities: Investors pool $5,500 apiece along with their time to help local nonprofits. SVP's elegant, virtuous-circle model produces smarter, more engaged donors and stronger nonprofits.
And returning winner New Leaders for New Schools improves education in inner cities one school at a time, by recruiting and training great principals for low-income schools. NLNS schools already have shown gains in reading and math scores. And more than 20 cities are creating their own principal-training programs with elements of the NLNS model.
The Social Capitalists are part of a global movement of entrepreneurs who've chosen to apply their skills to the common good. Though estimates of their ranks rise into the tens of thousands, figures are tough to verify. But if the group's size is nebulous, its impact is not: Just the bit of this movement devoted to making small loans to the poor, like winner ACCION International, lifted incomes of nearly 27 million families worldwide in a little over a decade, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Such results signal a new era of enlightenment in the social sector. Together, these organizations form a distribution network for social innovation — the beginnings of a system for reinventing systems.
To pick the Social Capitalists, Fast Company worked closely with Monitor Group to evaluate 118 nominees. We looked for groups with audacious aspirations, as well as the entrepreneurial savvy to fuel those plans. We looked for true innovation: unique, new solutions to social problems, or creative business models that produce bigger results than previous approaches. We looked for groups with proven track records and the resources to stick around in the future. And, most important, we looked for nonprofits that were moving the needle on social change — measurably and demonstrably making a difference with their work.
The stories of these organizations will remind you that many of the forces shaping society's future are within our control. Social capitalists show that pushing humanity's path upward is simply a matter of will and resources. It is also a function of our collective willingness to believe in possibility, to meet each day's news with the belief that the world can be a better place. Consider this an invitation, then, to raise your expectations.
Visit the Social Capitalist Resource Center. You'll find analysis of the 2005 results, descriptions of many finalist organizations, and biographies of the many experts who contributed to the package.
The Top 25 Groups That Are Changing the World
A version of this article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.