“Social entrepreneurship” is a sticky and ill-defined term. Ask the gal sitting next to you on the bus or your brother-in-law over dinner what it is, and you’re likely to get a head tilt and quizzical look. At best, you’ll get a ventured guess at what it sounds like it should be (“Um, entrepreneurship that is social…?”).
But what’s worse is that you’ll also get a slew of jumbled, sometimes contradictory responses if you ask social entrepreneurs themselves. It really is a poorly defined term.
I suppose this predicament is not unlike many other industries: ask a B2B marketer what “marketing” is and you’ll get a different answer than if you ask a marketing director at a non-profit organization the same question. Social entrepreneurship is as multi-faceted and nuanced as most other industries. But it still lacks even a set of good definitions.
I’d like to have a go at defining social entrepreneurship here.
This effort will hopefully satiate my friends and family, who (understandably) want to know exactly what it is that I’m talking about when I go out on one of my social entrepreneurship tangents. But I also intend for this to be a crack at assembling some of the research & writing I’ve been doing for my Master’s thesis.
Proviso: This will be a brief, “entry-level” attempt to define such a heady term. I don’t have all the answers. Many people are taking their own bids at defining the term (see end of post). The collective is working on it.
Okay. Let’s get to it.
What Social Entrepreneurship Is Not
- It is NOT about using social media to be an entrepreneur
(though social media may be used by entrepreneurs as a tool)
- It is NOT entrepreneurs getting together for drinks or lunch, in an effort to be social
- It is NOT crowd-sourced entrepreneurship
What Social Entrepreneurship Is
- It IS social, insofar as it seeks to solve social problems
- It IS entrepreneurship, because it uses business principles to solve social problems
Our planet faces big problems—from lack of access to clean water, to child abuse, to health epidemics, to destruction of biodiversity, to name only a few. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profit organizations (NPOs) are typically thought of as the primary entities that work to solve these types problems (for example, the Red Cross, World Wildlife Fund, Doctors Without Borders, etc.). Organizations like these have done incomparable and high-impact work. But the NGO/NPO sector is saturated with organizations that have conspicuously similar missions—and operations that draw from the same dwindling grant money and donor base.
This especially seems to be true in the United States, where a shriveling economy means fewer handouts and less allotted funding for NPOs. Where many NGOs/NPOs rely on generosity—be it governmental-based, foundation-based or individual generosity—a “non-profit” model is not always going to be the most effectively sustainable model—especially not in an increasingly capitalistic globalized economy.
This is not to say that NPOs and NGOs are doomed. Not at all. They fill a critical role that is not soon to go away. But they can’t solve all of our collective social problems.
Enter social entrepreneurship to fill in some of those gaps.
Social entrepreneurship ventures (SEVs) are often based on missions very similar to NPO missions: to help tackle environmental or social pains. But the SEVs approach solutions in an entrepreneurial way and with more “traditional” business practices.
Now, in the realm of social entrepreneurship there is discussion (argument, at times) about whether non-profit organizations fall under the umbrella of social entrepreneurship. I argue that they don’t. While the missions of social enterprises are usually indistinguishable from NPOs, the operational structures are wholly dissimilar: for-profit versus not-for-profit.
My Definition of Social Entrepreneurship
- SE resides at the intersection of innovation, entrepreneurship and social change
- SE emphasizes social value over profit—without leaving profit in the dust
- SE is oriented to the market and to economic value
- SE is interdisciplinary and cross-sector
- SE directs people toward solutions rather than imposing solutions upon them
- SE often solves problems at a local (sometimes small-scale) level with an emphasis on long-term, large-scale social change
I don’t have a one-line definition for social entrepreneurship. I’m not there yet; I’m not sure the sector is there yet, either. But I do believe—deeply believe, in fact—that definition is incredibly important. Definition is important not just so “social entrepreneurship” can land safely on the pages of Webster’s. Instead, definition is important because it distinguishes the sector—and allows social entrepreneurs to move forward in making social change.
(See how I did that? – I didn’t really provide a definition. Muahaha! But seriously. These are things that I do know about social entrepreneurship.)
Want to see some examples of what social entrepreneurs and what they do? This New York Times slide show, The Faces of Social Entrepreneurship, gives you a succinct look at four social entrepreneurs.
And a recent post by Ashoka Fellow David Castro, What is a Social Entrepreneur, Really? grapples with this question. It’s good reading.
I would love your feedback—whether you’re involved in social entrepreneurship or this is the first time you’ve heard the phrase.
Does this make sense?
Do you have questions about what I’ve discussed here?
Have anything to add or subtract? Tell me!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point to some of the thought leaders in the SE industry and their definitions. Here is a mini resource list for definitions of social entrepreneurship:
Ashoka – What Is a Social Entrepreneur?
Skoll Foundation – What Is a Social Entrepreneur?
SocialEdge – Defining Social Entrepreneurship
Stanford Innovation Review – Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition