Created by the Center for Spirituality & Healing and Charlson Meadows.

Doing Good: Improving Your Community with Social Entrepreneurship

When John Foster’s 21-year-old son came home one night severely beaten by a group of would-be carjackers, the protective father exploded with anger. He drove around their Omaha neighborhood looking for the men who had hurt his son, hoping to exact revenge.

But at some point, he stopped and asked himself how this was going to solve the problem. “I realized I was just a mad dad,” he said. “I told myself that we had to do something about all this violence, about all these lost kids. We had to get men organized and take on the problem.”

So Foster gathered a group of concerned parents and began M.A.D. D.A.D.S., a grassroots organization that sends “chaperones” into high-risk neighborhoods to offer support and assistance to young people caught in a cycle of gang violence. The group also provides escorts to those afraid to walk through violent neighborhoods, offers referrals to drug counseling and educational resources to those who seem interested, and generally establishes a loving, safe presence in neighborhoods that might otherwise feel unsafe. When Foster began M.A.D. D.A.D.S. in 1989, he had only the support of a handful of other men; today, the organization has grown to over 75,000 nationally, with chapters in 17 states.

A greater good

Foster’s story shows how community wellbeing can be improved through the action of concerned citizens. His effort, and the resulting organization, is an example of social entrepreneurship.

The University of Minnesota defines social entrepreneurship as “having a vision of a greater good and working to make it real.” Social entrepreneurs like John Foster are not motivated by money, but by the impact they might have on society. The University’s Whole Systems Healing website offers an interactive online module that features examples of people like Foster who have effected large-scale change by enacting their vision, contemplative exercises to help you find your own vision, and steps for creating a business plan to make that vision a reality.

Interested in making a change in your own community? Here are some tips.

Start with what you care about.

Reflect upon what you care about most. What needs of your community do you find yourself most concerned about? What populations do you want to help? Social change often begins with compassion. As John Foster drove around looking for the men who attacked his son, he was moved by two realizations—that everyone deserves to live on safe streets, and violent offenders need support and help to move away from a life of crime.  

Seek the input and help of others.

While one person can accomplish great things, a group of collaborative participants can achieve much more. Listen deeply to the concerns of others to see if your agendas line up. Accept donations, seek advice from others, and delegate responsibilities to people who are willing to help. Use your existing social network and expand it.  Within about a week of his son’s attack, Foster was distributing hundreds of fliers throughout their community, calling for a meeting with other concerned parents to discuss neighborhood security. He understood that if he was going to effect large-scale change, he was going to need to get other people involved.

Be both innovative and practical.

While it sometimes feels easy to get swept away in an idealistic vision for the future, making that vision a reality takes work. Take time to articulate both your dream (the bold, risky want you have) and goals (the specific, measurable, and realistic ways you plan to achieve that dream). Foster understood early in his grassroots campaign that he wanted to keep his neighborhood safe while offering offenders an alternative to a life of crime. But he also knew that to achieve this dream, he would have to do a lot of practical work—enlisting the help of other community members, passing out fliers, organizing community forums to gather others’ voices, and training volunteers to take shifts in dangerous neighborhoods.

Have an idea for a change you’d like to implement? Check out the University of Minnesota’s Social Entrepreneurship module for advice, tips, and other examples.

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