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Artists as Social Entrepreneurs – 3 Exemplary Leaders

July 17, 2014

As defined by Ashoka, social entrepreneurs are individuals with an innovative solution to a pressing social problem. They are ambitious and persistent in tackling the issues they target and in offering new ideas for wide-scale social change.

I gave a keynote at the SoCap13 conference titled "The Surprise Social Entrepreneur." My talk explores the five defining characteristics of the social entrepreneur as set out by the late Greg Dees, who helped define the field of social entrepreneurship as a professor at Duke University:

  • Socially driven – Social entrepreneurs are committed to advancing a mission that creates and sustains social value (not just private wealth).
  • Growth oriented – They recognize and relentlessly pursue new opportunities to serve that mission.
  • Innovative – They engage in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning.
  • Resourceful – They act boldly despite the often-limited resources they have in hand.
  • Accountable – They exhibit heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created.

I then look at the case of a single entrepreneur, ticking off, point by point, how this person and the organization he started fully meet the five criteria. While some details are given – "prioritizes access for all; sets price point for services to be affordable" (socially driven) and "negotiated ten-year, $10 million bridge loan to finance new production facility" (resourceful) — it is not until the second half of the presentation that the name of the person I am talking about is revealed.

He is James Houghton, the founder of the 22-year-old Signature Theatre Company in New York City. The talk finishes with a quick look at four other artist-social entrepreneurs to prove there is a critical mass of folks linking creative expression with pressing social problems. The larger point: It shouldn't be a surprise that artists also often are social entrepreneurs.

Over the past ten years, the social sector has been spotlighting, celebrating, rewarding, and investing in new leaders. But our role models have come from fields like education, health, and microfinance. Funders, the media, and other "kingmakers" are preoccupied with change agents who can improve math scores, lower the rate of Type-2 diabetes, raise the incomes of the poor, or catalyze a civil movement. All good things to be sure. But even though the arts can contribute to those types of objectives, they are largely ignored. I question why, and at what cost.

Artists in the U.S. are addressing topics like the sustainability of the food supply, the criminal justice system, and obesity. Artists in India are addressing issues as different as caste and recycling. Mexican artists are exploring topics of migration and gun violence. These are the same kinds of critical issues that other social entrepreneurs are tackling.

The artist-in-residence programs at the Institute for Advanced Study and the Center for American Progress highlight the unique contributions artists can make in a range of disciplines. Artists are envisioning the future through the lens of the economy, the environment, and youth. Communities seeking to become more sustainable recognize that artists can contribute to the solution.

The arts are sometimes dismissed as a rich people's indulgence that have nothing to contribute to important discussions about social change. Neither is true, both are a mistake, and such a perspective puts the entire sector at a disadvantage.

Arts organizations reach more than a third of American adults at least once a year[1]. I call that delivering innovation at scale. Arts organizations combine earned and contributed income streams to achieve sustainability and fulfill a mission. Hybrid funding model, anyone? Groups like Creative Capital, Oberlin College, and Harvard University are working with arts groups to build their skills in budgeting, marketing, and strategic planning, helping them to be more effective social enterprises.

Along with Professor Jane Wei-Skillern, I am currently researching and writing three MBA case studies featuring artist-social entrepreneurs. The subjects are Signature Theatre's James Houghton; Theaster Gates, an artist and urban planner who is helping to revitalize Chicago's South Side; and Deborah Cullinan, longtime champion of arts at the community level and new executive director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Artists are essential to every conversation about social innovation. Check out the three artists above to see why.

This post was written by Laura Callanan, Haas Scholar in Residence at the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership, where she is leading research into the trends in social sector leadership. A version of this post originally appeared on the blog of the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership at the Haas School of Business.


[1] National Endowment for the Arts, 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.

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Posted by Solène  |   September 25, 2014 at 07:57 AM

I love this article. YES, "there is a critical mass of folks linking creative expression with pressing social problem"!!

I am actually running a consulting agency which helps Creative professionals (artists, designers, film-makers, craft-makers etc) to start their own social ventures.

If you are interested in making a bridge between your creativity and having a social impact, please visit: www.creatorsforgood.com

Creatively yours,

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