Making Use of Human Capital: A Savvy Do-Gooder’s Technique

How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas , by David Bornstein. Oxford University Press, 282 pages, $28.

Unless you’re on the short list for the Nobel Peace Prize, this book will either make you feel guilty or inspire you-or perhaps both. The “social entrepreneurs” David Bornstein writes about in his portentously titled book are not fat cats with the urge to have hospital wings named after them, but rather folks like you and me who have an abundance of spirit and their priorities straight; they’re “social innovators” with “powerful ideas to improve people’s lives” across the globe. How to Change the World reminds us that we’ve all got it good, and that we all have the resources within ourselves to make things better for others.

If that sounds like a telethon slogan, don’t worry: How to Change the World is an affecting and bracing antidote to the creeping, cynical mind-set that insists that profound social change is impossible. Just about every social entrepreneur in the book started with limited resources and institutional resistance in countries with profoundly retrograde social attitudes, but found that, with enough energy, tenacity and business sense, the strength of their innovations gained momentum and eventually became new paradigms for social change. This is idealism wedded to hard-nosed pragmatism.

As an early example of social entrepreneurialism at work, Mr. Bornstein reminds us of the career of Florence Nightingale. A Victorian-era child of privilege who studied nursing against the wishes of her family, Nightingale in 1858 wrote a book that provided statistical analysis of the causes of sickness and death for soldiers during wartime. “Nightingale,” Mr. Bornstein writes, “was a pioneer in the use of graphical tools (such as polar-area or ‘pie’ charts), which she employed to dramatize the need for change.” The woman who saved countless British soldiers’ lives during the Crimean War was a canny numbers-cruncher, a care-giving actuary.

The key to social change, as the accomplishments of the extraordinary freethinkers profiled in How to Change the World attest, is a careful commitment to systems and information flow, as well as a gift for building coalitions between government and business. It’s not enough simply to have the desire; social entrepreneurs must be “relentless in the pursuit of their visions” and must “not give up until they have spread their ideas as far as they possibly can.” According to Mr. Bornstein, there’s an explosion of such innovators all over the world, thanks to advances in technology, the gains of the women’s movement and the subsequent worldwide explosion of N.G.O.’s, or nongovernmental organizations.

The leading theorist of modern social entrepreneurialism-and an economic dynamo, to boot-is Bill Drayton, a man who should be at least as well-known as, say, Ralph Nader. Mr. Drayton is a lawyer and a former E.P.A. official who now runs an organization called Ashoka (that’s “active absence of sorrow” in Sanskrit), which operates in 46 countries across Asia, Africa, the Americas and Central Europe and has thus far provided over $40 million in funding. Ashoka functions as a kind of corporate head-hunting service in search of unique leaders who can implement positive change, weeding out the dreamers from the doers. But instead of economic return, Ashoka seeks advances in education, rural development, poverty alleviation, human rights and health care. Imagine that, Mr. Trump!

The journey of each social entrepreneur tends to begin with a eureka moment, which is then executed by taking cautious baby steps. In 1982 Fábio Rosa, a 22-year-old agronomic engineer, was invited by a former schoolmate to visit Palmares do Sul, a rural outpost in southern Brazil that was lousy with farmland but didn’t have enough affordable water to irrigate rice, the region’s biggest cash crop.Theproblem?Wealthy landowners owned all the irrigation channels and set prices too high. The solution? Artesian wells that could procure water from the ground. But wells need electricity, and Brazil’s infrastructure had bypassed rural areas in favor of urban expansion. Mr. Rosa surmised that elaborate, three-phase electricity wasn’t necessary to power the wells; a “monophase” current system employing a single wire running through a transformer could get the job done. Mr. Rosa established a municipal department for training and a credit mechanism so farmers could afford to sink their wells. He prepared a detailed economic analysis that determined crop yield and prices to attract investment, and soon farm incomes jumped 300 percent. Treat a socially noble undertaking like a well-executed business project, and the world will beat a path to your door.

For a handful of social entrepreneurs in How to Change the World, the great epiphany involved employing the beneficiaries of their largesse as human capital. Jeroo Billimoria mobilized abused and neglected children in India, a country whose ruling class regards the troubled underclass as a nuisance at best. Ms. Billimoria’s big idea was create a simple, toll-free number that children in distress could call to report injuries, abandonment, whatever, and then receive assistance from Ms. Billimoria’s organization, Childline. Mr. Billimoria’s pint-size reclamation projects in turn proselytized, blanketing neighborhoods with Childline stickers bearing the number. Emboldened by her success, Ms. Billimoria took it macro, organizing the country’s disparate child services under Childline’s umbrella. Jeroo Billimoria is like some dream combination of Mother Teresa, Edward Bernays and Charles Bluhdorn. Her stratagems-“branding”theChildline name with the massive plastering of stickers across the country, building a child-care empire through consolidation and database management-would be the stuff of corporate legend if Wall Street were involved.

As for education-well, it’s not only about hard numbers, Mr. President. J.B. Schramm, a Harvard divinity student turned grass-roots reformer, came to the conclusion that underprivileged American high-school kids who skip college don’t necessarily lack motivation, but rather the knowledge and skills to tackle the application process itself. The key, as he viewed it, was shoring up mediocre transcripts and test scores with ancillary material like well-written personal essays. In the early 90’s, he created something called College Summit, workshops in which students hone their writing skills and self-esteem. In 2000, 81percent of College Summit participants enrolled in college. Soon, Mr. Schramm got teachers involved (human capital again), using them as tutors to help guide their students through the application labyrinth. From small things, big things one day come.

There are other, equally stunning stories in How to Change the World: Erzsébet Szekeres, who created a new model for disability care in Hungary by putting her charges to productive work, or Veronica Khosa, a South African who instituted home-based care for AIDS patients and radicalized health-care policy in her hidebound country.

At a time when hope seems a precious commodity, here’s a book that offers it up in abundance.

Marc Weingarten is at work on a book about journalism in the 1960’s and 70’s.