Getting Beyond Better – How social entrepreneurship works
 Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg

Reviewed by Michael Alberg-Seberich

This is a book about systems change or, as the authors call it, ‘equilibrium change’. It may be a cliché, but in social sciences or humanities this issue often implies complicated prose. Getting Beyond Better proves that storytelling is a powerful bridge to understanding and believing. The book is well written and edited. It comes to life through many case studies of social entrepreneurs.

The two authors belong to a leading group of people who influence the thinking on social entrepreneurship, underlined by Arianna Huffington’s foreword. Roger L. Martin, a business strategy thinker well known for his work on integrative and design thinking, and Sally Osberg, long-term president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, present a framework for social entrepreneurship as an important lever for overcoming many of the ills in this world.

As powerful as the stories in this book are, they are mainly stories that have been told over and over again. We again meet the ‘poster children’ of this field. Just to be clear, this observation does not reduce the importance of the work of Paul Farmer of Partners for Health or Andrea and Barry Coleman’s Riders for Health, among others. But you might wonder why we always read about the same, award-winning, women and men.62 bookreview_GettingBeyondBette_Alberg-Seberich

System check: the world of social entrepreneurship is a very small one.

The book should spark a debate not only on a theory of social entrepreneurship but also on how such a theory is derived. Martin and Osberg describe themselves as ‘reflective practitioners’. This is a fair stand to take. Nevertheless, the reader should consider the history and background of the authors in the field of social entrepreneurship. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s observation that ‘meaning is socially, historically, and rhetorically constructed’ is also true for the field of social entrepreneurship.

System check: we need a debate on why today some of us have such high hopes for social entrepreneurship and how entrepreneurs’ own stories connect to the field.

The authors’ four-layered framework for social entrepreneurship describes deeply complex processes within systems but is nevertheless easy to follow. ‘Understanding the world’, ‘envisioning a new future’, ‘building a model of change’ and ‘scaling the solution’ are the phases. It sounds very plausible that a social entrepreneur first needs to understand a topic to envision a solution that will be the base for a model that, once proven, needs to be scaled.

System check: social entrepreneurship may not be that unique because these layers are rather common when humans innovate, aren’t they?

Even raising these questions, the book is a treasure filled with rich examples and analyses on social entrepreneurship. A good example is the in-depth analysis of how to scale an identified model for equilibrium change. Martin and Osberg show through many examples that ‘impact can happen directly, but it is most often accelerated and solidified through the works of others. This dynamic speaks to the power of a connected world, and the catalytic way social entrepreneurs do their work’. This highlights the need for increased collaboration.

The authors raise important questions about the practice and theory of social entrepreneurship. Some questions focus on individual leadership. Other queries regard the best way to document the impact of disparate systems-change levers. These questions have a broader meaning for the third sector overall and therefore need to be discussed in a wider arena – this book can be a good starting point for doing so.

Getting Beyond Better is in many ways an ambitious book. It should be one that is not just read as an explanation and valuation of social entrepreneurship but also as a system check for this field and where it belongs in the overall universe of proposed solutions to tackling the world’s most pressing challenges.

About the book
Published by
 Harvard Business Review Press
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Michael Alberg-Seberich is managing partner of Active Philanthropy and managing director of Beyond Philanthropy. 
Email alberg-seberich@active

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