Social entrepreneurs are innately torn people. They use traditional business practices to fuel change that was once home only to philanthropic work. They are pulled between an instinct to help and the desire to make others independent. As Vera Cordeiro can attest, they want to take on the world, but know they must focus their efforts.
As the person behind the post-hospitalization care center Renascer, Cordeiro was driven from the inception of her organization to change how Brazil’s entire health care system operates. Plagued by recidivism, children would be treated, released, and almost immediately (because of their squalid living conditions and poor diet) re-hospitalized. It was a vicious cycle that was responsible for lives of certainly millions of Brazilian youth.
Recognized as one of Brazil’s “women of the year” in 2001, Cordeiro did in fact initiate a transformation in how children are cared for after they leave the hospital. “Cordeiro frequently has to remind herself that Renascer does not exist to solve all of Brazil’s woes,” David Bornstein writes, “Its job is to ensure that vulnerable children treated at Hospital da Lagoa truly benefit from the medical care they receive and, as far as possible, stay healthy outside the hospital.”
Social entrepreneurs almost unanimously suffer from the same temptation – namely, to try to take on more social causes, more cases, and more challenges than they are capable of. When a new consultant asked Cordeiro how she would choose among 20 needy families if she only had space for ten, she replied, “Since the beginning when we had no money and leaky roof, our rule was to bring in all 20 families. Something has always allowed us to grow.”
There is certainly something redeeming about the social entrepreneur’s idealized vision of a truly better world. But any business that overextends itself risks the quality of its service, which, for most agencies striving for social change, actually means inadequate attention to the most desperately impoverished people on the planet. Which is better – giving more specialized attention to a few people, or giving less time to a broader customer base?
Fortunately, with the help of Ashoka and management consulting services, Vera Cordeiro could get the best of both sides. The number of children “at risk” after being discharged from Renascer dropped from 42 percent to ten percent, and their families’ average incomes have increased by 58 percent. Perhaps even more importantly, her organization has spawned a number of agencies modeled after Renascer across Brazil. More children are getting the care they need, and fewer are in need of re-hospitalization.
With the right resources in the right circumstances, Cordeiro was able to push her dream closer to fruition. “Sometimes a person has success because that person continues fighting,” she said. “I think if I have some value it is that I continue fighting.”