Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

static1.squarespaceYou could call Jonathan C. Lewis a late bloomer. Not until he retired from business in his mid-50s did he rediscover his 1960s activist soul and become a full-time “social entrepreneur.” Lewis founded a nonprofit impact investing firm now called MCE Social Capital that makes loans to poor people in the developing work. He created Opportunity Collaboration, a conference for activists and funders unlike any other. And he co-founded Copia Global, an Amazon-like e-commerce catalog for consumers at the bottom of the economic pyramid in Kenya.

All that came after an eclectic career for this 69-year-old Californian. He worked as an aide in the California state legislature, became a lobbyist, opened an art gallery, started a small real estate development company, came up with the idea for a retail chain selling high-end artisan merchandise, served as chief executive of the California association of health maintenance organizations and ran a consultancy helping US health care executives learn from best practices overseas. 

Along the way, Lewis kept his eyes open, made a bunch of mistakes and learned a great deal. He has distilled his knowledge into The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur, a new book about social change that manages to be both entertaining and wise. It is neither an overview of the social sector, nor a conventional memoir, nor a how-to manual, exactly. Instead, it is a collection of personal essays with single word titles — Justice, Starting, Passion, Power, Mentoring, Failure, Confessions — that can be read in any order, and should be read by anyone starting a life’s work devoted to social change.

Lewis told me recently: “The only important question is, how do you lead an honorable life when there is so much dishonorable stuff going on around you.” That’s the question this books seeks to answer.

As a writer, Lewis is smart, insightful and almost entirely free of b.s. I say almost because the term “social entrepreneur” has always struck me as pretentious. But Lewis explains up front that he’s using it as a synonym for political activist, change-maker or community organizer.

He also can be fun to read, to wit: 

Some of my closest friends and colleagues have questioned my sense of humor and, in particular, my cringe-worthy puns and snarky quips. These critics, obviously lacking in comic judgment, are manifestly mistaken.

My kind of guy.

Headshot+TwoI met Jonathan Lewis briefly at Opportunity Collaboration, and again at the Skoll World Forum. He’s friendly, outgoing, a consummate networker and shooter of the breeze, and a bit of a wiseguy.

As he writes about his all-boys high school in San Francisco:

If the tendency to rebel against authority in youth in any way foreshadows a tendency to challenge the status quo in adulthood–then my teenage years definitely equipped me for a social change career. Either that, or for a life of crime.

Lewis a big believer in learning by doing. “Enroll in the university-without-walls around you,” he advises. Travel widely, listen carefully, and “let your heart be sickened by the injustice it meets.” Your first job (or your current job) will probably not be your last, but it’s probably better than unemployment. “It’s a lot easier to network and show off your talents from a place of employment than from a cafe, a sofa or a hot dog stand,” he writes. “And, it’s nearly impossible to get a letter of recommendation from an employer if you don’t have one.”

Lewis is clearly motivated by his passion for social justice. “I’m upset, angry about the way our social and economic system work,” he told me. “I think it redistributes wealth and power upwards.” But he also knows that doing meaningful work can be personally rewarding:

I’ve never heard a social entrepreneur say that they are confronting one of the world’s ailments to cure their own–but it’s a damn nice job perk. By all accounts, the experience of giving back, of pitching in, volunteering, donating, serving on a nonprofit board and canvassing at election time stimulates our sense of personal happiness and well-being…

If we want to live life to the fullest, then tackling the biggest, baddest problems is a major endorphin high…If you have a psychological, and entirely human, need to be needed, then being needed by a gigantic global cause is as good as it gets…Community service (from classic charity to conscious capitalism) ignites an exhilarating rush…Also, did I mention that social entrepreneurs are, by reputation, terrific lovers?

His breadth of experience–working in government, business and the nonprofit world–has taught Lewis to be a pragmatist. He has no patience for those in the social sector who sneer at corporations (and there are a lot of such folks), nor for the corporate types (and there are many) who look down on nonprofits.

“A drowning person doesn’t ask, or care, whether a taxpayer, a shareholder or a nonprofit paid for the lifeguard,” he notes.

Saul Alinsky meets Dave Barry

Lewis is at his best when tackling the thorny challenges posed by globalization and privilege. Globalization, he writes, is unstoppable. He forcefully rejects the Trumpist us-versus-them view of the world. (I assume he is no more sympathetic to left-wing protectionism or the “buy local” crowd, though he doesn’t say much about those). “Empathy makes no distinction between a crying child in Mississippi and a crying child in Malawi,” he writes. And yet he confesses to his own biases, writing: “I gag at discovering a Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Lima, Peru, but drool at the prospect of a Peruvian dinner in San Francisco.”

In a nuanced way, Lewis also explores what he calls “the inescapable tension between two very legitimate impulses: the impulse to respect a community, and the impulse to change it.” He writes:

Social entrepreneurs, by disposition and doctrine, prefer to honor indigenous traditions and promote community autonomy, authority and agency…We respect local leaders, local customs and local decision-making. We seek community buy-in.

Until we don’t.

…After all, who asked me to show up, dragging along my newfangled ideas about clearing landmines with sniffing rats; fighting malaria with bed nets; family planning for women? Clean-burning cookstoves to reduce air pollution?

Or free shoes. Lewis describes TOMS Shoes as “the oldest form of altruism known to humankind: alms for the poor. In economic development terms, TOMS Shoes is product dumping with a heart.” He also tells a revealing story about his own well-meaning but misguided attempt to help out a housekeeper-cook who he got to know during a family vacation in Antigua, Guatemala.

There’s much more in The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur. Michael Gordon, who teaches at the business school at the University of Michigan, describes it as “Saul Alinsky meets Dave Barry.” What’s not to like about that?

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