why libraries and archives need social entrepreneurs

30 Jan

What is a social entrepreneur?  While there are probably a few definitions out there, I think Wikipedia sums it up well.

A social entrepreneur recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create and manage a venture to achieve social change.  Whereas a business entrepreneur typically measures performance in profit and return, a social entrepreneur focuses on creating social capital.

Well-known social entrepreneurs include Muhammad Yunus who founded the Grameen Bank, which really brought microfinance to the forefront, and Wendy Kopp, founder and president of Teach for America.

Social enterprise has been an interest of mine for the past few years.  I originally moved to DC to work as a Social Enterprise Fellow at the children’s literacy nonprofit First Book.  First Book’s mission is to provide brand new books to children from low-income backgrounds through existing programs such as Head Start, Boys & Girls Clubs, Title I schools, and other community-based programs.  I was drawn to the nonprofit because of its cause marketing campaigns – and also because First Book gives educators the power to choose the book titles for their kids.  What makes First Book a social enterprise is how it uses private sector thinking to distribute books and achieve social change.  For example, the First Book Marketplace is an online store that sells books (and other educational products) at a deeply discounted price to eligible programs.  As a revenue generator, the marketplace ensures that First Book won’t be entirely dependent on the goodwill of corporations and individual donors.

Now the title of this post isn’t suggesting that there aren’t social entrepreneurs already working in the field.  I haven’t read all 450 profiles of Library Journal’s Mover and Shakers, but I’m sure some of them are definitely social entrepreneurs.  Social entrepreneurs can really help libraries progress forward, especially in this moment of technological and economic change.  Like many of you, I’m tired of hearing how libraries are going to die (because they’re not), but they do need to make some changes.  I’m not in any sort of library management position, and I don’t know the particulars of library finances – but the current financial model for most libraries clearly isn’t sustainable if services and staff are being cut all over the world.  The fact that huge budget cuts are even a topic of wide discussion is an indicator of its unsustainability.  While libraries should work on publicizing and proving their worth to those-with-the-money, they also need to think of alternate ways to get funding — especially generating their own revenue.  There’s more work to be done than arguing our worth to the government and public.

So my question is — do you know of any current projects in libraries or archives that are (or could be) a semi-sustainable revenue generator?  We certainly don’t collect enough money in fines, and I don’t think the answer lies in increasing them.  Libraries need social entrepreneurs, and I know there must be some already working in the field.  If there are, we need more.  And if there aren’t, let’s change that.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 30, 2011 in social enterprse



One response to “why libraries and archives need social entrepreneurs

  1. Brian Leaf

    February 2, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Hi Rose – Great post! I totally agree.

    This is an area that I’m definitely attracted to as well. I started out in a purely corporate environment for a brief time, and I did think a lot about how private sector practices might be used for good. It’s the reason I’m in library school today.

    I don’t know of any current projects, but I’d be certainly be interested in thinking/collaborating around one.


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