This article was first written in 2007 but I felt it was relevant in 2014 as we move more local, national and multinational organizations towards social enterprise.
In my view the term “Social Entrepreneurship” has become somewhat of an umbrella concept so I thought a review of the definition and the history of the term entrepreneurship would help me refocus in 2014. Hope it helps you as well!
From Stanford Social Innovation Review:
Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition (SSIR). By Roger L. Martin & Sally Osberg
Social entrepreneurship is attracting growing amounts of talent, money, and attention. But along with its increasing popularity has come less certainty about what exactly a social entrepreneur is and does. As a result, all sorts of activities are now being called social entrepreneurship. Some say that a more inclusive term is all for the good, but the authors argue that it’s time for a more rigorous definition.
The nascent field of social entrepreneurship is growing rapidly and attracting increased attention from many sectors. The term itself shows up frequently in the media, is referenced by public officials, has become common on university campuses, and informs the strategy of several prominent social sector organizations, including Ashoka and the Schwab and Skoll Foundation foundations.
The reasons behind the popularity of social entrepreneurship are many. On the most basic level, there’s something inherently interesting and appealing about entrepreneurs and the stories of why and how they do what they do. People are attracted to social entrepreneurs like last year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus for many of the same reasons that they find business entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs so compelling – these extraordinary people come up with brilliant ideas and against all the odds succeed at creating new products and services that dramatically improve people’s lives.
But interest in social entrepreneurship transcends the phenomenon of popularity and fascination with people. Social entrepreneurship signals the imperative to drive social change, and it is that potential payoff, with its lasting, transformational benefit to society, that sets the field and its practitioners apart.
Although the potential benefits offered by social entrepreneurship are clear to many of those promoting and funding these activities, the actual definition of what social entrepreneurs do to produce this order of magnitude return is less clear. In fact, we would argue that the definition of social entrepreneurship today is anything but clear. As a result, social entrepreneurship has become so inclusive that it now has an immense tent into which all manner of socially beneficial activities fit.
In some respects this inclusiveness could be a good thing. If plenty of resources are pouring into the social sector, and if many causes that otherwise would not get sufficient funding now get support because they are regarded as social entrepreneurship, then it may be fine to have a loose definition. We are inclined to argue, however, that this is a flawed assumption and a precarious stance.
Social entrepreneurship is an appealing construct precisely because it holds such high promise. If that promise is not fulfilled because too many “nonentrepreneurial” efforts are included in the definition, then social entrepreneurship will fall into disrepute, and the kernel of true social entrepreneurship will be lost. Because of this danger, we believe that we need a much sharper definition of social entrepreneurship, one that enables us to determine the extent to which an activity is and is not “in the tent.” Our goal is not to make an invidious comparison between the contributions made by traditional social service organizations and the results of social entrepreneurship, but simply to highlight what differentiates them.
If we can achieve a rigorous definition, then those who support social entrepreneurship can focus their resources on building and strengthening a concrete and identifiable field. Absent that discipline, proponents of social entrepreneurship run the risk of giving the skeptics an ever-expanding target to shoot at, and the cynics even more reason to discount social innovation and those who drive it.
Starting With Entrepreneurship
Any definition of the term “social entrepreneurship” must start with the word “entrepreneurship.” The word “social” simply modifies entrepreneurship. If entrepreneurship doesn’t have a clear meaning, then modifying it with social won’t accomplish much, either.
The word entrepreneurship is a mixed blessing. On the positive side, it connotes a special, innate ability to sense and act on opportunity, combining out-of-the-box thinking with a unique brand of determination to create or bring about something new to the world. On the negative side, entrepreneurship is an ex post term, because entrepreneurial activities require a passage of time before their true impact is evident.
Interestingly, we don’t call someone who exhibits all of the personal characteristics of an entrepreneur – opportunity sensing, out-of-the-box thinking, and determination – yet who failed miserably in his or her venture an entrepreneur; we call him or her a business failure. Even someone like Bob Young, of Red Hat Software fame, is called a “serial entrepreneur” only after his first success; i.e., all of his prior failures are dubbed the work of a serial entrepreneur only after the occurrence of his first success. The problem with ex post definitions is that they tend to be ill defined. It’s simply harder to get your arms around what’s unproven. An entrepreneur can certainly claim to be one, but without at least one notch on the belt, the self-proclaimed will have a tough time persuading investors to place bets. Those investors, in turn, must be willing to assume greater risk as they assess the credibility of would-be entrepreneurs and the potential impact of formative ventures.
Even with these considerations, we believe that appropriating entrepreneurship for the term social entrepreneurship requires wrestling with what we actually mean by entrepreneurship. Is it simply alertness to opportunity? Creativity? Determination? Although these and other behavioral characteristics are part of the story and certainly provide important clues for prospective investors, they are not the whole story. Such descriptors are also used to describe inventors, artists, corporate executives, and other societal actors.
The rest of the article can be read on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website.