For Andrew Seligsohn, the traditional academic path — graduate school, doctorate, tenured professorship — eventually led him away from the ivory tower and into a hands-on involvement with social change as director of civic engagement learning for Princeton University’s Pace Center.
After graduating from Williams College in 1989 with a self-designed major in modern intellectual history, Seligsohn studied political and democratic theory at the University of Minnesota. His doctorate explored the deep and emotional responses evoked by both political and esthetic experiences in an attempt to understand people’s commitment to social change. “I have a longstanding interest in understanding why people sometimes come to feel very deeply and passionately connected to political goals and movements and sometimes leaders,” he says. In the course of the research he realized that his real interest was how people produce social change and political change.
Seligsohn taught at St. Olaf and Macalester Colleges in Minnesota before moving to Hartwick College in upstate New York. Over those years his approach to teaching his students about social change developed a different focus. “I became more and more interested in engaging students in hands-on experiences that would allow them to see this happen at close range,” he says. When offered the opportunity to come to the Pace Center, he jumped at the chance.
Seligsohn will speak at the first of three workshops on “Social Entrepreneurship in the Non-Profit Sector” at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Leadership Forum on Tuesday, June 16, at 8 a.m. at the D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center, off Rosedale Road in Princeton. The other workshops will be Tuesday, September 22, and Wednesday, November 11. Cost for the three workshops: $100. To register, go to www.princetonchamber.org.
Until relatively recently social change has been associated with political and legal institutions, or with more traditional social mass movements like the civil rights and feminism. Social entrepreneurship, an idea that has acquired a name over the past decade, functions a little differently.
To understand social entrepreneurship, says Seligsohn, requires understanding first what entrepreneurship means in a business context. “The earliest definition is moving capital from relatively less productive to relatively more productive enterprises,” he explains. “If you are interested in achieving social change, there may be a way of using resources available to us — human resources, capital — that is more productive, that has a greater payoff in the long run than things we have been doing.”
Social entrepreneurship also means thinking not only about meeting existing needs but about how to reduce those needs in the future. Regarding homelessness, for example, he says, “the traditional approach is simply to find housing for homeless people. More recently, it is to try to eliminate the phenomenon of homelessness.” Social entrepreneurs will look at the underlying causes of homelessness and ask what they can do to prevent them from happening, like providing short-term financial assistance to keep people in their homes or trying to meet people’s mental health needs.
Seligsohn offers several examples of how organizations have redeployed resources to change the rules of the game rather than just continuing to meet existing needs (although he emphasizes that fulfilling needs is also important):
Change the relationship of the organization to the community around it. Open Arms of Minnesota, where Seligsohn used to volunteer, was founded to provide nutritional support to HIV-positive people, first through a drop-in center and later with home meal delivery. About a decade ago the organization’s donor and volunteer base started to shrink as more, especially wealthier, people with AIDS and HIV had access to drugs, and people assumed the AIDS crisis was over.
So what did Open Arms do? “They decided to deal with it by making their work harder,” explains Seligsohn. “They added cancer to HIV.” As with people who are HIV positive, cancer patients find it very difficult to shop, cook, and keep themselves and their families fed.
By capitalizing on these connections between HIV and cancer patients, Open Arms was able to bring in a larger group of supporters and volunteers. “When there are shrinking resources, organizations often think they have to shrink the mission to fit the resources,” observes Seligsohn. “What Open Arms did was realize it could expand its mission and could bring with it expanded resources, and as a consequence more effectively serve its original population, people with HIV, and serving another population, people with cancer.”
Bring things together that are not obviously linked to one another. Hot Bread Kitchen in Brooklyn identified several related phenomena: Immigrant women came to the United States with expertise in baking traditional breads from their home countries; women had little access to good economic opportunities; the traditional knowledge that women carry with them is often being lost; and, as populations have dislocated, traditional knowledge has decreased, and traditional agriculture has been supplanted by corporate agriculture.
Many of the ingredients for traditional baking had no markets to sustain them and were difficult or impossible to find.
So founding director Jessamyn Waldman created an organization that hires women to make traditional breads that are, in turn, sold by the organization as a revenue source. And there are more benefits.
“The women doing the baking are being trained in running a small business so they can set up their own bakeries serving the communities they are part of,” says Seligsohn. “In doing so, they are creating markets for these ingredients, developing an entrepreneurial foundation in immigrant communities, and providing women with economic independence.”
Mobilize the human capacities of people in the community to achieve positive change. Rather than sitting on its hands and asking why Pittsburgh was not dealing with the problem of vacant and blighted lots, GTECH Strategies developed an organization that both cleaned up these lots and enhanced the community’s human capital.
The organization has joined education and job training with the transformation of these lots into productive spaces like parks and urban farms or gardens.
Regarding the farms, people are not only creating them but also doing ongoing farm work and learning job skills as simple as showing up to work on time.
Leverage resources through partnering. Seligsohn cites research in the book “Forces for Good” by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, which examined successful nonprofits and found that their success was not based, as expected, on organizational discipline. “What characterized successful social ventures was the capacity to leverage resources, largely through networks and partnerships,” he says.
Seligsohn offers an example of successful networking by activist group Environmental Defense. “At a certain point it realized that one way it could significantly multiply its impact was by working with corporations that were trying to improve their own public images with regard to environmental questions,” he says.
When McDonald’s made the decision to get rid of Styrofoam, it was partly because Environmental Defense sat with the corporation, emphasized that a huge PR victory would result, and helped McDonald’s figure out how to roll out the change in a way that would maximize its environmental contribution.
Seligsohn grew up in Peekskill, New York, where his father, Walter Seligsohn, is a retired lawyer. His mother, Ann Seligsohn, works for Westchester Residential Opportunities, a housing advocacy organization, as its fair housing director.
Since moving to New Jersey in 2007, Seligsohn has lived in Trenton, where he takes full advantage of the cultural opportunities the city provides.
He is also an active citizen — officer of his neighborhood association, the Old Mill Hill Society, on the board of directors of Anchor House, and participates in the urban studies group that meets at Classic Books.
Seligsohn has also been busy at the Pace Center. His team taught a course called “Social Change in the City: Education, Environmental Justice, and Social Entrepreneurship” with the associate director of the Center for African Studies. He develops and executes programs, like a political engagement program to get students involved in and learning about politics.
He also helps oversee students’ alternative break trips and is involved in an experimental project to train residential college advisors in community organization skills to help them develop strong communities in the residential colleges.
In addition to nonprofit leaders, Seligsohn invites to the workshop local business people who have an idea of how they can make a positive change to take part. “It will be an opportunity to think about how they might put that idea into practice,” he says.