Civic Entrepreneurship Powered By Networks

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For many, the month of December is a holiday season – a time to give. But for today’s leaders, giving back isn’t reserved for a single season. Instead, it’s a way of life.

Yet, following the Great Recession of 2008, the nature of giving has changed. As the social and economic landscape of our country has shifted dramatically, leaders in the public, private and civic sectors are becoming more collaborative in leveraging their personal, professional, government, educational and philanthropic networks. Whereas we once cut checks on behalf of our enterprises under the banner of “corporate giving,” we now know the most meaningful and lasting social good occurs when we act as “civic entrepreneurs.”

Stephen Goldsmith, author of The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Social Good, describes what it is to be a civic entrepreneur: “They are a savvy, motivated and results-oriented group of individuals who, through disruptive innovations, create opportunity and hope. Together with a large group of caring citizens who aspire to help others through service, they prove each day how talent and compassion can change lives and in so doing hold the key to America’s future.”

As executive director of The Chicago Network (TCN), I see this frequently as I watch our members, some of the city’s most accomplished women leaders, actively engage their networks to make a real and lasting difference here in Chicago and beyond.

Therese Fauerbach, TCN board chairman and CEO of consulting firm The Northridge Group, tells the story of her networks happily colliding. “Our family belongs to St. Norbert’s Parish in Northbrook. A couple of years ago our pastor learned that a disproportionate number of people in the Northbrook community – well beyond our parish – were being deeply impacted by the recession. Out of work, they had nowhere to meet, network or look for new opportunities,” says Ms. Fauerbach. “My husband Jim and I noticed the second floor of the old convent was sitting empty. We cleaned things out, talked to a Chicago bank that had surplus office furniture in storage and pretty soon we had a beautiful conference room where job seekers could meet.

Next, we converted the nuns’ bedrooms into offices and tapped our network for folks willing to donate time to teach classes in resume development, sales and networking. Over the course of the following 18 months, members of the community used the refurbished space to work, meet and collaborate. Most found jobs, some started businesses and, in the end, the community came together to help each other.”

Like Therese and Jim Fauerbach, the civic entrepreneurs I see in our city are not stymied when they get to the intersection of business, government, education and community. Instead, they’re energized and gravitate toward the powerful possibilities of tapping into their networks as well as their own expertise to address challenges. They understand how to organize their assets and use their influence to generate results.

According to the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin, civic entrepreneurs share several traits. First, they know how to operate within our new economic realities and “are compelled to act on an optimistic vision of how their community can be successful.” They are focused on why things can happen and lead with a collaborative style. They are not held back by title or rank and are willing to roll up their sleeves and work shoulder to shoulder to accomplish shared goals. They tap into their networks in thoughtful and innovative ways. And more often than not, civic entrepreneurs are at the helm of the groups they convene with no formal power or authority but, rather, based on their credibility and the simple fact that they are trusted.

As we look at a U.S. economic recovery that even the Congressional Budget Office tells us may take 15 to 20 years, the role of civic entrepreneurs and their networks will only become more vital. In The Power of Social Innovation, Mr. Goldsmith observes, “We have seen that civic inventers can produce exhilarating change in a person, a family, or community by expecting them to succeed and by viewing their jobs as clearing away obstacles.” When we leverage the best of our networks to give something back to our communities we enable progress that otherwise might take much longer to achieve.

Ms. Fauerbach captured this perfectly when I asked her how she could make time for her civic entrepreneurship among her many other responsibilities. Without hesitation she answered, “It’s how we live our lives.”

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About Kate Bensen

Kate Bensen has been executive director of The Chicago Network since April 2010. Prior to joining the Network, Ms. Bensen led the non-profit capacity building practice for Conlon Public Strategies for two years and practiced law at Schiff Hardin LLP, one of Chicago’s leading law firms, from 1986 to 2003. She has more than 20 years of experience in working with non-profits and is involved with many civic and philanthropic organizations.