Passion is important for social entrepreneurs, but what sort of passion?

One of the things people talk about social entrepreneurs needing is passion. Although it's never entirely clear what is meant by that: something to do with being able to see it through the hard times (can't give it up because you feel so strongly about it), something to do with how you communicate what you do (and why it's needed), something about it coming from personal experience (sometimes), something about loving it….etc.etc

Stanford Social Innovation Review points to a forthcoming research article about understanding 'passion' a bit more in the entrepreneurial context. It differentiates between 'affective' passion (surface passion: facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice), 'cognitive passion' (revealed in your preparation, thoughtfulness, logic etc) and 'behavioral passion' (how have you demonstrated your commitment: investing own money, time; taken personal risk / responsibility etc). Their take on it is that 'affective passion' is not particularly successful at attracting funding and investment or gaining support. Rather it is the 'cognitive' and 'behavioral' passions which are more likely to do so.

Now the cynics may say that this is just a jazzy way of saying: you should really do your preparation and analysis and/or (in the case of the behavioral stuff) we want to see your commitment demonstrated. But I think there's something interesting here for social entrepreneurs, in that passion is not just about rousing, inspiring speeches…or moving people with the intensity of their story. It's also about turning up on time to meetings, preparing thoroughly, consistent commitment, being rigorous in approach to measurement and analysis, and so on. Indeed, for many, these are things they find difficult, so will only do if they are really passionate (in all the above meanings) about the organisation they are establishing and leading.

Benjamin Franklin said that "If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins"; what this research might say in addition, is that passion can be shown through rational thought and actions, not just emotional ones.

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7 thoughts on “Passion is important for social entrepreneurs, but what sort of passion?

  1. The root of passion means ‘to suffer’. You have passion for something in proportion to the extgen that you are prepared to suffer for it.
    Also so many have passion just for the idea of ‘social justice’. As soon as difficult action is required the passion evaporates.
    Ken Robinson’s book The Element is strong on this topic!

  2. Nick.
    I am a HUGE believer that you need passion to do this, not only because it helps you “sell”, but becuase without passion it is improssible to make it through the tough times.
    Right now, I am speaking to a lot of people who are interested in the SE space as a “career move” following their layoffs. They clearly have a “concern” that things need to change, and that SE has a role in that, however what I keep taking them back to is that they need to really love the issue. that it needs to be a core for them.
    Otherwise, when the market comes back (let’s assume it will), then the odds of returning to their former lives is high.
    On the sell side, I cannot tell you how much I personally invest in passion. If I am speaking with an NGO leader, interviewing an intern, or supporting an SE idea.. I want to see a fire. Perhaps it is related to the point I made before, or perhaps it is from working within the social space as long as I have, but passion an investable virtue for me.

  3. Thanks Mike – I like the way that’s expressed, and a good book recommendation to boot.
    Crossroads: yes, I think we look for a ‘fire’ as well, but I guess this research is saying that, depending on the character of the person involved, that fire can manifest itself in different ways. If someone’s spent days perfecting a spreadsheet, that might not come across in person instantly, but might be demonstrable of their passion to make things work, if you know what I mean.
    But I’m in agreement with both of you!

  4. I can’t access the full article in question, but i will search it out to read more. I certainly agree that passion is frequently called for but what we might mean by it varies or is unclear.
    Those three pyscho-emotional lenses mentioned are an interesting way to look at it and i imagine they all interact as well. “Cognitive” passion that has led to someone being fully prepared or incredibly thoughtful, could give them the internal space to use “affective” passion in a meeting or event because the cognitive has layed the groundwork so to speak.
    I’m with you Nick in that it is something that can manifest itself in different ways. The archetype for a ‘passionate person’ in the sector sometimes translates as someone who is barnstorming, “tells it like it is”, loud and vocal. This might be effective in some cases but i tend to respond to passion that is more open and yiedling when necessary – perhaps because it is driven in different ways by those two other passions.
    I suspect it throws up different issues for this sector/movement than the straight entrepreneurial world. This idea is also helpful because i imagine it can be encouraging and liberating for new social entrepreneurs to know that that their passion can take different forms like this – particularly given the wide range of backgrounds, cultures and places that social entrepeneurs in the UK come from. In my experience its one thing that some social entrepreneurs worry about – that whilst they are deeply passionate they don’t have the ‘affective’ passion to get people on side. Although as Crossroads says, the fire has to be there either way (in some form).
    Also whilst i can see that those two ‘passions’ would be effective for investment or gaining funding, i wonder about whether that would be true for gaining support from a lot of people to a wider cause where an outwardly passionate speech or call to arms might have an impact?
    I’m interested in where the passion is directed. That is where you’re “something about loving it” comes in perhaps Nick. Loving the process of it all as well as the outcomes will lead to passion even when, as Mike says, difficult actions might be required or we might be going through a sticky patch.
    I guess it is a dance: sometimes the passion is cognitive, sometimes behavioural, sometimes affective.
    Anyway, great post and one i’m passionate about (sorry…had to be done) investigating and watching happen (or not) in my labatory for all this – myself.

  5. Thanks Martin – my understanding is that the research is ‘forthcoming’, though you can see full details of the journal etc here:
    It looks like it focuses on commercial business / venture capital, but like you I think it has real relevance to this sector, given that people have that ‘passion’ and ‘purpose’ even more ingrained in what they’re doing.
    + I think you’re right about loving it too. If we can’t enjoy and feel passionate about the process, it’s hard to keep slogging along!

  6. I’m not sure that I agree with the label ‘passion’ being given to all these behaviours. It seems to me that the rational thought and actions can equally be called commitment. Can I be committed without being passionate? I think I can if I chose to be. There are many things I do well that I am not passionate about. And maybe I do things best when I am passionate.
    This also raises the question of where passion comes from. I think our emotions are just the way passion manifests, and the passion is sourced in our inner fire, our spirit.

  7. I think that’s fair comment, Mike, and did occur to me as well. One might easily talk of these three different ‘types’ of passion as something like: emotion, reason and personal investment…or, as you say, commitment might apply to all three as well.
    I guess to go back to definitions, passion is both about powerful emotion and about an enthusiasm or zeal for something (as well as having the ‘suffering’ connotations the other Mike points to). Some definitions even relate it specifically to irrationality, which would again point up the potential contradictions in categorising it in the way the research appears to do.