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What are We Really Willing to Risk for Real Return?

By: Sonal ShahFounding Executive Director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation, Georgetown University

At the Aspen Leaders Action Forum, a gathering of Aspen Fellows from around the world, I am surrounded by incredible people like Naandi Foundation CEO Manoj Kumar from India, Capital Alliance Company Ltd. head Judith Aidoo from Ghana, and co-founder and Senior Advisor of Agora Partnerships Ricardo Teran from Nicaragua. Each respectively is making strong contributions to build an ecosystem that allows village farmers, businesses and social entrepreneurs find good capital to create impact for communities and lift them out of poverty. In a world of inequitable access to capital, they are making real change. There are others at this Action Forum working on other compelling issues.

We are partially at Aspen to reflect as we think about action. One of the readings was Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. As I was reading this, his comment “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” really struck me again. We not just connected in our countries, but we are connected globally. Then he offers the four basic steps for a non-violent campaign – 1) collection of facts to determine whether injustices are alive; 2) Negotiation; 3) Self purification; and 4) Direct action. Then, I read Peter Buffett’s recent op-ed about the Charitable Industrial Complex in which he says, “Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.” The non-profit sector has become a $316 billion industry in 2012 in the United States alone employing more than 9.4 million. And yet, inequality is rising.

Something is wrong. We have the facts, we have negotiated and we are self purifying.

As I sit here at this gathering, I see that we each in our own ways are doing BIG things to move small mountains. Yet, I can’t seem to get over the nagging feeling that there must be more. Sure we can have 1000 successes, but is that enough? Will each of these individual efforts be enough to create the tipping point? What would it actually look like to build a new system for social change – not version 2.0 or 3.0, but as Buffet says “build a new system from ground up”?

This is not about fixing. This is about changing the system. Dr. King called for action and Peter Buffett is also making the same call. We need a completely new way of thinking, new models, new systems and a collective approach from business, government, and social sectors leaders alike to make a dent on the world’s greatest challenges. We are facing monumental challenges – Water, Education, Healthcare, Climate Change – complicated by an ever-increasing world population. We need risk takers who want to make change and are willing to take some big bets, not just calculated bets. We need non-profits who are willing to challenge the status quo and try new models, not just variations of what we know. We need government leaders who are not afraid to lose an election because they see the change coming. In short, we need leadership that wants to take a chance.

As I leave the forum I ask myself this question – What am I (we) willing to risk for real return which I may not see in my lifetime? Or, have I (we) just become the clergy in the Letter from Birmingham?

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