• Winthrop Carty

Gender, Social Entrepreneurship, and Collective Impact

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Photo: Giving Circle for Women & Girls — New England International Donors

“For millenniums, every expression of power has been conditioned by male attitudes toward the world. To women, then, it seems that power can be used only in ways that men have traditionally used it.” — Elena Ferrante

Social Entrepreneurship is about using entrepreneurial approaches to change systems of governance, business, and behavior for the betterment of the planet and people. In the often-quoted words of Ashoka founder Bill Drayton, “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.” Nevertheless, at least in the aggregate, social entrepreneurship seems to be falling short of its promised systemic change. Does gender have anything to do with that shortfall? If so, what would a more gender-balanced approach to social entrepreneurship look like?

The persistence of patriarchy in the business world is well documented. Given that social entrepreneurship is derived from business-based structures and management logic, it suffers from the same problems: women are underrepresented among those holding the purse strings, board seats, and top leadership. For example, according to a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy and NYU, 71% of large US nonprofits have male CEOs and 66% have primarily male boards, in juxtaposition to majority-women staff populations (66%). Even among social entrepreneurs themselves, disparities still exist. For example, although the ratios have improved significantly in recent years, 42% of current Ashoka Fellows worldwide are female versus 57% male (<1% other gender identity).

Gender imbalance in social entrepreneurship is more than just about parity in numbers of men and women in leadership roles. It’s also the fact that we persist in building our institutional frameworks and constructing our models of leadership along patriarchal lines. Filling seats from “binders full of women” (as candidate Mitt Romney infamously said during his 2012 presidential debate with Barack Obama) will not fully address the changes needed for women social entrepreneurs to flourish and for the sector to bring about the systemic change it touts.

In what ways is social entrepreneurship “patriarchal”? For starters, most funding, awarding, and media attention still favors the lone hero entrepreneur who envisions a change and battles opposing forces to bring it about — maybe a Wonder Woman, but usually a Superman or Batman. Second, as Iman Bibars points out in her excellent piece on women social entrepreneurs, “the prevailing model of social entrepreneurship considers impact according to a definition that favors male-dominated notions of broad impact through scaling out and franchising.” In other words, social entrepreneurship still emphasizes scaling products or services through one increasingly powerful enterprise built by the entrepreneur instead of through adaptation or replication (by others). Add to this the usual patriarchal suspects of top-down hierarchy, strong bias in favor of interventions that are measured in ways that show attribution back to the entrepreneur, and competition over collaboration. Finally, it all goes back to money: the vast majority of big private donors and impact investors are men who built their wealth following this tried and true (for them) logic. Consequently, as the journalist Anand Giridharadas argued so compellingly in his 2018 broadside of Big Philanthropy, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” the piper calls the tune.

We can acknowledge that many traditional business approaches have their place in the ecosystem of social change. For example, mass production at a “Walmart scale” of clean cookstoves at minimal cost by the same social business can have enormous positive impact on the health and economic opportunities of millions of families currently forced to, among other things, deforest their lands to obtain toxic cooking material. These benefits notwithstanding, the extensive research and writing done on women’s leadership styles points us in some very different directions for social entrepreneurship.

Applying a Gender Lens to Social Entrepreneurship

A survey of 64,000 people in 13 countries representing a global spectrum of economies and cultures across five years inventoried leadership traits most perceived as “feminine”. These include: collaboration, flexibility, patience, empathy, and future planning, versus “male” leadership traits like independence, analytical ability, pride, and decisiveness.

Even if we acknowledge the binary nature of these labels and the fact that they are often more about biases than inherent traits, we can get a strong sense of what attributes get most overlooked or undervalued compared to those most celebrated as “entrepreneurial.” So, what might a more gender-balanced approach to funding, supporting, and practicing social entrepreneurship system look like? I think such approaches would emphasize:

1. Collaborative Entrepreneurship, included sharing the credit for who envisions a change and battles opposing forces to bring it about.

2. Rewarding those social entrepreneurs who emphasize scaling through adaptation or replication (by others).

3. Consultative and less hierarchical approaches through participatory design approaches, such as those pioneered by MIT D-Lab;

4. Longer-term investment and funding approaches modeled on Acumen’s “Patient Capital” and less fixation on short-term ROI.

5. More focus on “emergent” approaches to organizational strategy as opposed to linear logic models based on a singular grand vision.

6. Greater focus on systemic impact and less on “measurable” attribution back to one individual, institution, or funder.

I mentioned two positive examples above: MIT’s D-Lab and Acumen. Is it a coincidence that both were pioneered by women — respectively Amy Smith and Jacqueline Novogratz?

While many of the above approaches are lauded, they suffer from insufficient institutional and financial support. Single-organization hierarchy still wins over backbone-supporting networks, linear narratives of impact are still favored over systemic shifts, the hero still gets more credit than the group.

From Heroic Scalers to Collective Impact

In addition to the inherent fairness of gender parity, a more gender-balanced system of social entrepreneurship will be the only way that the sector will have true impact: our daunting systemic problems can only be solved, well, systemically — across silos of institutions and individuals as well as of sectors, geography, class and identity. For example, all the world’s national governments, even if they were unified, could not prevent or mitigate climate change on their own. Tackling poverty at a local or regional level requires that health, education, business, and many other institutions work together.

Systemic approaches to tackling systemic problems are beginning to emerge. Among these, one is most commonly called “Collective Impact.” Collective Impact approaches entail the marshaling of often-disparate or redundant institutional resources working around a common region or challenge. For example, the Central Appalachian Network (CAN) brings together multiple actors — such as funders, governments, and civic organizations — to support community-based and sustainable economic development in a shared region of the US. According to the authors John Kania and Mark Kramer, Collective Impact initiatives must have strong, well-resourced backbone support organizations that staff and provide management support on behalf of all the collaborators.

Another approach has been to build and sustain purpose-driven networks of change agents, including social entrepreneurs. These networks promote systemic thinking among key leaders through peer learning, convening, and support, and can be leveraged for impact. My own work, first with the Ford Foundation’s global innovators network and for the past decade with the Melton Foundation’s 600 global citizenship fellows, New England International Donor’s community of philanthropists, and the Wellbeing Project’s Ecosystem, have entailed such networks. Many other networks of changemakers have increasingly been instilling a collaborative mindset and leveraging the power of their networks of changemakers for impact. These include Ashoka, Schwab Foundation, and Synergos to name just a few. Behind these individuals are institutions, communities, and sector-expertise that can be brought to bear to forge collective responses to systemic problems.

Unfortunately, robust “cross-boundary” collaboration that rises to the level of a systemic approach is mostly still on the drawing board. The interdisciplinary nature of these initiatives, their emphasis on the group instead of “a leader,” as well as the lack of speedy outcomes (what systemic change is immediate?) or their inability to establish a direct causal relationship between the network and systemic change all make them inherently unattractive to funders and other supporters. Changing this will necessitate a cultural and structural shift from the patriarchal model I described earlier to one that embraces –not just with lip service — more horizontal, consultative, and inclusive forms. Authors Sarah Kaplan and Jackie VanderBrug put it best in their article, “The Rise of Gender Capitalism”: “Investing with a gender lens is about creating a new economic logic that bridges the market logic of financial returns with the feminist logic of women’s equality…. and changing processes, not simply working within them.”

He (and She) Who Pays the Piper Should Call a New Tune

The growth in both the number of women social entrepreneurs and the attitudes that enable a more collective, systemic approach is trending positively. Based on their investigation of people’s beliefs of the gendered attributes for what makes a great leader, researchers Andrea Vial and Jaime Napier concluded that “more stereotypically feminine leadership traits (i.e., communality) appear to have become more desirable over time…and some have claimed that these attributes will define the leader of the future.” The authors worry, however, that these traits will stay stuck as “nice (but expendable).”

I believe that the major institutions that fund and support social entrepreneurship can take important steps to move away from a siloed, hyper-competitive and patriarchal model of tacking the world’s daunting problems. For starters, funders should work together to invest more “patient capital” into backbone organizations and collaborative, cross-silo grants, convenings, and communications infrastructure focused on systemic problems, from environmental degradation and health to youth unemployment. How about also creating new high-profile awards for groups instead of lone heroes? Imagine, for example, the “Schwab Award in Systemic Innovation” or the “Ashoka Group Fellowship”? This article has looked at social entrepreneurship through a gendered lens. As with all lenses, of course this entails some distortion and oversimplification. However, to the extent that there is a correlation between gendered leadership styles and these more systemic approaches, not only do women social entrepreneurs win, but the world does, too. At the end of the day, it’s not about male or female approaches or attributes, but about having systems that tap the full spectrum of human strengths. Only in this way can we be truly systemic in how we tackle systemic problems.

Winthrop Carty, October 2019


Planting the Seeds for Social Startup Success: 10 Things to Remember When Starting a Social Enterprise,

2018 Ashoka Fellows Impact Study,

Lack of Women in Top Roles Hinders Nonprofits, Female Nonprofit Workers Say, by Maria Di Mento,

Iman Bibars, Redefining Success for Women Social Entrepreneurs, in Social Innovations Journal, Issue 52, November 30, 2018

“Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” Anand Giridharadas

Athena Doctrine Study, John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio

The most useful description of Collective Impact can be found in a series of articles published by the authors John Kania & Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011 “Collective Impact” Issue.

The Rise of Gender Capitalism By Sarah Kaplan & Jackie VanderBrug, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2014

Andrea Vial and Jaime Napier, Unnecessary Frills: Communality as a Nice (But Expendable) Trait in Leaders, Frontiers in Psychology, 15 October 2018

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