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Irish Impact keynote speaker David Bornstein: Report solutions, not problems

by Carol Elliott

October 7, 2013


On the evening of Oct. 3 when author and journalist David Bornstein began his talk, the federal government shutdown was in Day 3. Hundreds of thousands of workers had been furloughed, the financial markets were showing strain, and there was a growing concern over the possibility of a credit default.

“It’s a wonderful time to be alive if you like to fix things,” Bornstein told the audience gathered in the Mendoza College of Business’ Jordan Auditorium. “Because everything is broken.”

Bornstein was the keynote speaker for the second annual Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference, held Oct. 2-4 at the University of Notre Dame. The conference, organized by the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship and the Fellow Irish Social Hub (FISH) brought together some of the foremost social innovators who utilize the tools and principles of  entrepreneurship as a way of addressing issues of access for vulnerable populations, whether in the public health arena, education, energy, or economic development.

Bornstein’s comment wasn’t delivered with the cynicism, or even as a Pollyannaism that somehow everything will turn out for the best. Rather, the statement was a straightforward expression of his perspective as a journalist and author: Broken things are getting fixed through social innovation, and there are myriad stories to back this up. However, these stories often are not getting told, or at least not in a compelling way, due in large part to the mainstream media’s reliance on traditional plot-based journalism models that focus on the problem, not the solution.

Bornstein, a journalist and author who focuses on social innovation, co-authors the “Fixes” column in The New York Times Opinionator section, which explores and analyzes potential solutions to major social problems. He is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports journalists who report on constructive responses to social problems.

“Solutions journalism goes beyond the traditional five Ws of journalism—who, what, when, where, why—to the missing H, the how,” says Bornstein, pointing out that the traditional approach tends to focus on the conflict or set up villains, much like traditional storytelling. Instead, he suggests reporting on stories in such a way that arouses curiosity in readers, so they not only begins to care about the issue, they also begin to engage as problem solvers themselves.

One of the results of this approach over the “bad news” style of reporting is that it encourages optimism and a sense that a broken society can be fixed. Further, as these stories are told, patterns emerge that can lead to enlightenment about how social problems can get solved – a sense of the possibilities rather than a list of defeats.

“The world is actually an extraordinarily interesting place right now, because of the amount of problem solving and innovation that’s bubbling up right now,” says Bornstein. “And in many cases, if you hear these stories, your sense of possibilities changes.”

For an hour and a half, Bornstein described example after example where an individual or sometimes a group took on complex, intractable problems affecting modern society – from math education and homelessness, to the escalating rate of unnecessary hospitalizations – by trying new approaches based on a recasting the problem into a different context.

 The 100,000 Homes Campaign, for instance, takes the approach that chronic homelessness – which affects more than 700,000 Americans on any given day – can be solved, not just managed. The key is applying a vulnerability index that identifies the “highest value targets” – those who need help most urgently – and bringing together local businesses, foundations, government agencies, landlords, outreach workers and service providers to arrive at an integrated approach. The campaign has placed about 70,000 individuals so far in permanent housing.

“How many of you have heard this story,” Bornstein asked the 200-plus member audience. “Two? Where?”

“Somewhere on the Internet,” an audience member responded.

Bornstein’s books include “How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas,” “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” and “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.” He is currently completing a book on social innovation in the U.S. and Canada.

The Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference included sessions designed to facilitate networking among social entrepreneurs and the Notre Dame community, to improve the understanding of what “rate of return” means for social ventures, and to introduce strategies for seeking funding sources.

The three-day event also included the Zielsdorf Family Investment Pitch session, where judges heard live funding pitches from a select group of seasoned social entrepreneurs; the Irish Impact Opportunity Fair, where more than 50 social entrepreneurs set up displays and were on hand to discuss their ventures; and the Irish Impact Awards, which recognized organizations and individuals who have demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit and significant social impact.

The Fellow Irish Social Hub (FISH) offers incubation services to social entrepreneurs ready to launch their ventures. In partnership with Innovation Park at Notre Dame, FISH provides world-class facilities and critical occupational services, as well as valuable research and development tools. Its nine-month business incubator program is designed to prepare each client to launch a social enterprise and to maximize its social impact. For more information about FISH, visit http://www.ndfish.org/index.php.

The Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship was founded in 1998 for the purpose of fostering innovation and infusing aspiring entrepreneurs with a sense of the possible. Through rigorous coursework, our business plan competitions, extensive networking and mentorship, and hands-on learning experiences, we provide students with the knowledge and skills vital to traditional and social entrepreneurship.

The Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference is made possible with support from the Robert L. (ND ’65) and Frances J. Zielsdorf Family. The Zielsdorf Family provides support for health care, education and hardship and emergency grants to deserving individuals and families in Indian River County, Fla.; Shelby County, Ohio; and in Cheboygan County, Mich. As long time supporters of Notre Dame and Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, the Zielsdorfs view the opportunity to help underwrite this conference as a way to support the growth of Social Entrepreneurship to help instill the idea that elements of capitalism can be harnessed as a force for good.

For more information about the Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference, call (574) 631-3042, visit business.nd.edu/Gigot_Center/, or email Melissa Paulsen at mpaulse1@nd.edu.