Celebrity CEOs in Social Ventures and NFPs

There’s a great discussion going on at Venture4Change today, and one of the topics is on the role of the Leader/Entrepreneur/CEO in a Social Enterprise or NFP – the consensus at the table is that social enterprises need to eliminate the role of the “Celebrity CEO” and rather focus on building depth and breadth in their organizations.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Although I do agree with a strong emphasis on sustainability, succession planning, and other core good governance topics, one of the reasons that for-profit entrepreneurs can be so successful is that they don’t hesitate to jump in with both feet; they don’t hesitate to let their venture define their identity.

If someone is launching a social enterprise (something that I would argue is far more difficult than a for-profit enterprise), they can’t afford to launch a project while keeping one foot out the door. By refusing to adopt the mantle of “Celebrity CEO”, a social entrepreneur is squandering their most valuable resource during the start-up stage: their story.

Here are some examples of Celebrity CEOs that social entrepreneurs can use as touchstones:

  • George Roter &  Parker Mitchell => Engineers Without Borders
  • Craig Kielburger => Free the Children
  • John Wood => Room to Read

As crass as it may sound, donors and partners are like customers in that they don’t want to have to think more than absolutely necessary. It behoves a social enterprise to make it as easy as possible for a donor or partner to understand the story and value. Tying the Founder’s or CEO’s identity to this story makes the process much easier.

Yes, as an organization grows, it needs to be about more than just the Founder/CEO. However, discarding the value of a “Celebrity CEO” for the sake of long-term sustainability goals, is simply road that will be longer, harder, and less likely to succeed.


VP HCM Products at NetSuite and Founder of TribeHR and Lewis Media. Waterloo Region Enthusiast and active volunteer.


  • In social enterprises, the story leads the celebrity, and the story usually only starts with the founder/CEO. The real hook is later, after the base has been personified.

    Using a “Celebrity CEO” mnemonic seems to imply too much about the CEO and not enough about the story as the hook people have. This may work for Jack Welch and the for-profit sector, but I think the order here is decidedly different.

  • I agree with part of your statement: you’re right that the story leads the celebrity – but I’d disagree that the other direction works in the for-profit sector.

    In both sectors the greater story is more important (sorry if I implied it wasn’t), however I think the point still stands that linking the personality to the story is a very effective strategy. Disregarding the individual entirely (which seemed to be the point of the conversation I’m arguing against) is counter-productive.

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