Module 4: The Role of Innovation

Social Entrepreneurs as Engines of Innovation

Just as business entrepreneurs are willing to take risks and play around with ideas until they find one that works, social entrepreneurs must dare to innovate even if it means treading where no one has ventured before. Of course, not all social innovations are successful. But even so-called failures are usually blessings in disguise because they inform the social entrepreneurs what to avoid in a future enterprise. Since social entrepreneurs often work in a variety of different social contexts throughout their career, with each new situation demanding a different approach or even a different solution, they must be flexible in the way they think and approach problems.

Innovation – A Tool to Better the Whole Society 

There is no doubt that innovation plays a vital role in any entrepreneurial enterprise. While the ability to generate innovative ideas is important, this alone cannot make the social entrepreneur successful. Many people can think creatively and generate a lot of ideas, but many tend abandon their projects once their own problems are solved. According to William Drayton, the social entrepreneur effects a paradigm shift in the whole society:

“There are many creative, altruistic, ethically good people with innovative ideas. However, only one in many thousands of such good people also has the entrepreneurial quality necessary to engineer large-scale systemic social change. Entrepreneurial quality also does not mean the ability to lead, to administer, or to get things done; there are millions of people who can do these things. Instead, it refers to someone who has a very special trait -- someone who, in the core of her/his personality, absolutely must change an important pattern across his/her whole society. Exceedingly few people have this driving motivation. Most scholars and artists come to rest when they express an idea; many managers relax when they solve the problem of only their company or institution; and most professionals are happy when they satisfy a client. It is only the entrepreneur who literally cannot stop until he or she has changed the whole society.”(1)

A Case in Point: Andrew Carnegie & the Birth of the Library System

“Imagine that Andrew Carnegie had built only one library rather than conceiving the public library system that today serves untold millions of American citizens. Carnegie’s single library would have clearly benefited the community it served. But it was his vision of an entire system of libraries creating a permanent new equilibrium – one ensuring access to information and knowledge for all the nation’s citizens - that anchors his reputation as a social entrepreneur.”(2) – Roger L. Martin & Sally Osberg in the Stanford Innovation Review

Social Entrepreneurship and Eye Care

Unite For Sight supports eye clinics worldwide by investing human and financial resources in their social ventures to eliminate patient barriers to eye care. The village and slum communities where Unite For Sight and the eye clinic partners now work had not previously had access to eye care due to many patient barriers. Unite For Sight's model enables the local ophthalmologists to create real change and a sustainable impact for those living in extreme poverty. With Unite For Sight's support, the local ophthalmologists develop and lead eye care programs that provide high-quality, cost-effective care to the world's poorest people.

Unite For Sight’s programs are sustainable because emphasis is placed on nurturing and developing local potentialities so that eye clinics can meet local eye care needs on a long-term basis. Unite For Sight provides the necessary support to cultivate leadership, talent, and ideas among its eye clinic partners. Not only are eye care programs led by local staff, but local volunteers are also trained to serve as support staff at local eye clinics. To nurture local talent, visiting specialist volunteers, such as ophthalmologists, optometrists, and ophthalmic nurses, provide training to local specialists. Unite For Sight’s model is able to significantly increase the number of surgeries provided by local eye clinics annually. For more information, visit

Unite For Sight works with partner eye clinics to provide local solutions, identifying and overcoming community-specific barriers to effective healthcare delivery, such as transportation and communication. Patients are transported to and from the eye clinic. Moreover, local community leaders and members are involved in outreach activities, raising awareness and providing education regarding eye care to those who would otherwise not have access to eye care. Unite For Sight’s model has been employed successfully in a variety of different social contexts in Ghana, Honduras, and India.

Go To Module 5: Sustainable Impact and Learning Outcomes >>


(1) Davis, Susan. "Social Entrepreneurship:Towards an Entrepreneurial Culture for Social and Economic Development." (2002) (8 June 2009).

(2) Martin, Roger L., and Sally Osberg. "Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition." Stanford Social Innovation Review (2007): 28-39. (8 June 2009), 37.