Last month, I spent a fascinating couple of days at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford, England. It was exhilarating—and deeply moving—to hear example after example of social entrepreneurs making quantifiable improvements in lives all around the world. As Stephan Chambers, chairman of the Skoll Centre, put it: "I have cried every day this week. Remember as I tell you this, that I’m male. And British. And from Oxford." I actually cried every hour. But, remember, I’m female. And Greek. And from Cambridge.
It was a reminder that the innovation, passion, and empathy on display at Skoll transcend gender, politics, geography and education. Service is in the zeitgeist. Now, zeitgeist is a German word almost untranslatable in English, but it does exist as a concept. And when individuals and businesses tap into it, they have the wind at their back.
This trend for giving back provides a stark relief for the uninspiring spirit of the 2012 election. On a national level, we’re paralyzed and polarized. Politicians are trying to use our ongoing financial crisis to roll back society to the days before safety net programs provided the essential services that helped grow the American middle class. Our leaders are engaged in misguided debates about budget cuts instead of how to spur growth. And there is a widespread refusal, especially in the media, to acknowledge that the crises we are facing go beyond the obsolete dichotomy of left versus right.
Pushing back against the failures of our leaders and institutions—and the resulting lack of trust—is a growing movement of people and organizations taking the initiative to share, engage, connect, solve problems, and demand some control over their future. While we wait for our leaders to act, thousands are looking at the leader in the mirror and taking action.
We see this in Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, which connects young tech professionals with the needs of city governments. And Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose, which connects donors to underprivileged schools. There’s Ben Berkowitz, who launched SeeClickFix, the site that connects people with non-emergency problems in their neighborhoods—such as a broken street lamp or potholed road—to others who can chime in with solutions. And Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen Fund, which combines financial expertise with empathy, investing in startups around the world that help improve the lives of people unable to do so on their own.
With unemployment still over 8%, we have more ingenuity, energy, spirit, and expertise than we have jobs—and definitely more time on our hands. We’ve seen individuals using that time to tap into the all-American barn-raising spirit to "widen the circle of our concern," as President Obama said in his speech responding to the shooting of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
"We are on the cusp of an epic shift," wrote Jeremy Rifkin in his 2010 book The Empathic Civilization. "The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy." He makes the case that as technology is increasingly connecting us to one another, we need to understand what the goal of all this connectivity is, and allow humanity to see itself as an extended family living in an interconnected world. The innovators I’ve listed, along with countless others, are the drivers of that worldview.
So, if you’ve forgotten Physics 101, here’s a quick refresher. To a physicist, a critical mass is the amount of radioactive material that must be present for a nuclear reaction to become self-sustaining. For the service movement a critical mass is when the service habit hits enough people so that it can begin to spread spontaneously around the country. Think of it as an outbreak of a positive infection. And everyone is a carrier. What we need to do is go out and carry this positive infection, so that together we can reach that critical mass.