Celebrating the Extraordinary

This month's letter from the editor.

In his 80th year of life, the famous English sculptor Henry Moore was asked a fascinating question by literary critic Donald Hall.

"Now that you are 80, you must know the secret of life. What is it?"

Moore paused ever so slightly, with just enough time to smile before answering.

"The secret of life," he mused, "is to have a task, something you do your entire life, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is: It must be something you cannot possibly do."

The sculptor's remarks represent a nicely packaged theory of a productive life: Throw yourself into something big that you believe in. Dedicate your life's work to it. And make damn sure it's ambitious enough to stretch you to the limits.

It's a philosophy that guides the 25 social entrepreneurs honored in this issue with our second annual Social Capitalist Awards. Turn to "The Change Masters," starting on page 47. Each of these extraordinary individuals has tackled a seemingly impossible task: "something you cannot possibly do." And each of them has triumphed in bringing creativity, passion, and smarts to that task to make a meaningful difference.

The Social Capitalists package, produced in partnership with the consulting firm Monitor Group, not only recognizes the accomplishments of these remarkable entrepreneurs. It also explains the how behind what they have achieved, describing creative ideas and lessons helpful to all of us, no matter what we do or how we do it. And behind every initiative — from helping underprivileged children go to college or exporting entrepreneurship to solve Latin America's most daunting social problems — is a tale that truly inspires.

Consider the story of Jonathan Schnur, who leads New York-based organization New Leaders for New Schools. The group helps to recruit and train entrepreneurs to become principals in inner-city schools. It was while working on education policy in the Clinton administration that Schnur became unsettled by the shockingly low reading and math scores among low-income and black children. He came to believe those low scores were the result of a dearth of quality teachers and principals in inner-city schools. Schnur went to Harvard Business School to learn how to do something about the problem, and with four fellow grads founded NLNS in 2000. So far, his "leadership factory" has turned out 152 principals serving 75,000 children. "The proudest moment for me will be when we can say we've got 2,000 schools serving a million kids," he says.

New Leaders for New Schools is an extraordinary enterprise — but then, so is the Social Capitalist Awards project itself. Our team began work on this year's awards almost as soon as last year's package was complete, rethinking the methodology that guides our selection of the best social entrepreneurs and gathering the top experts who help make our analysis smarter and more rigorous. The standards we apply are high. After all, we're essentially trying to create a new system of accounting for the not-for-profit sector. So we measure organizations by their social impact, aspiration and growth, entrepreneurship, innovation, and sustainability.

This year, we began accepting nominations in June, and our assessment lasted most of the summer and into October. In all, it took nine Monitor consultants and an equal number of Fast Company editors and writers, led by deputy editor Keith H. Hammonds and contributing writer Cheryl Dahle, to make this package happen. No fewer than 48 experts from education, community development, health care, and other fields worked with us to identify promising organizations, refine our criteria and metrics, and assess the performance of our finalists. And the participating organizations themselves invested countless hours in preparing and defending their applications.

Why would a business magazine invest so much time and energy in a project that isn't, in the end, about traditional business? Because these Social Capitalists bring commitment and innovation to their work. Because increasingly, they are engaging with for-profit companies to realize their goals. And because ultimately, they may be a bit closer to Henry Moore's secret of life than the rest of us.

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