Skip to main content

Questioning Assumptions

12 areas where social entrepreneurship needs to improve: Part 1

The social entrepreneurship field is growing, exciting, full of potential, but limiting itself, affecting what it could achieve.

This is particularly unfortunate as this field seems to be onto something. For some reasons, it resonates. Author Giles Hutchins states, “It … seems that more and more people feel drawn into a career as a social entrepreneur.” The field is increasingly being heard in the mainstream, and is even popping up in MBA programs, a not-so-obvious place for it.

As a hybrid field, it originally had to overcome significant social and even psychological barriers to the strong category boundaries most of us cling to, i.e. “You’re either a businessperson or a social worker -- you can’t be both.” Yet, ironically, it is remarkably non-self-reflective about where it chooses to aim its main weapon -- innovation -- and where it simply accepts business-as-usual.

Having attended six social entrepreneurship forums and studied their promotional brochures; read several articles about the field, including its main journal (The Stanford Social Innovation Review); moderated a panel (see videos here and here); taken a course; and discussed the field with participants, I see several key ideas still largely missing. A literature search did find a few exceptions, but only enough to be the exceptions that prove the rule, not the critical mass of anomalies that would prompt one’s internal voice to suggest a deep re-think.

Currently, whatever is special and innovative about social entrepreneurs tends to be limited to their one big idea -- the thing which has never been done before -- and, of course, their clear social motive to make a difference in the world. Beyond that, what is discussed in the field is rather conventional and similar to what any entrepreneur would be told.

It would be a tragedy if as increasing numbers of people become successful social entrepreneurs, even if they achieve both “sustainability” as usually defined in this field (see below) and the “scale-up” so important to the field, it still does not sufficiently shake up how significant parts of business and social work are done. That is, if it doesn’t make enough dents in our problems.

For now, it is sufficient to see social entrepreneurs as innovators working at something in between a business and a social-welfare organization, perhaps in individual cases leaning more one way or the other. In short, according to Business Week, they "use business methods to solve social problems.” However, much more needs to be said about its definition, as the inherent ambiguity you might have noticed is both helping and, in its excess, unnecessarily hurting the field (hey, I usually like ambiguity). This will be discussed later in this series. (For the definitionally oriented, a particularly good one is by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.)

But looking ahead, the possibilities that social entrepreneurs can exist inside large companies that are pursuing (but not necessarily leaders yet) in sustainability does not even come up at forums. That possibility is not in the room!

One example of social entrepreneurs is the famous pioneer of micro-finance, the Grameen Bank. Led by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, their great innovation was showing the conventional wisdom that poor, rural women were poor credit risks and could not be a viable market for banks’ financial services was wrong, and developed a peer-based repayment model.  Another is the prominent discoverer, financier, mentor and promoter of other social entrepreneurs, Ashoka.

Image credit: CC license by zappowbang/Flickr

Assumptions that should be questioned

Here are three major self-limiting assumptions I’ve heard at forums, none of which was questioned by participants. At least nine more assumptions will be described later in this series:

1. While there are usually a few green social entrepreneurs (who tend to be owners of small-to-medium-sized companies with a green product) at every forum, most are not, as usually the social welfare side gets the emphasis. But given the global environmental crisis, why aren’t all social entrepreneurs also green, at least to a degree, and urged to become even more so -- even if their focus and passion are elsewhere?

While social entrepreneurs’ environmental loadings are probably light, they should be expected to do their parts, too. If not, they risk becoming part of the problem, particularly as they scale up. In an example which begged for deeper green engagement, an urban honeybee social entrepreneur received a deserved ovation from the audience for her work. But as bees are obviously critical to her supply chain, it would have been worth mentioning that they are severely threatened by colony collapse disorder, as well as her going further by trying to play a role as a citizen-scientist (perhaps “entrepreneur-scientist”) helping to research solutions to the problem. By contrast, the United Nations’ SEED Initiative usually gets the social/environmental connection better, although their forums and those of social entrepreneurs’ need to mingle.

2. Relatedly, “sustainability” tends to be used strictly in the financial sense, in the capacity of social entrepreneurs to be able to stay “in business,” not in the Brundtland, triple bottom line, can-we-keep-going-the-way-that-we’re-going sense at all. For example, Rajiv Shah, the USAID administrator, in discussing its Global Development Alliance initiative with business and NGOs, said, “We also keep sustainability in mind when we design our partnerships, meaning that we hope the private sector will continue the partnership activity after USAID funding ends.” (However, this agency is not consistent in which use they mean.)

This point is particularly important because it actually gets back to, but challenges, one of the field’s early seminal metaphors: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The metaphor falls apart if the water body is fished-out or severely polluted. The metaphor could use an update.

3. With “social” in its name, the field less often equates innovation with just “technology-centric” ideas than do other fields, but it still tends to overlook needed changes in culture, organizations and individual behavior. While nothing is wrong with some emphasis on technology or ICT, this should not come at the expense of non-technology innovations, which are so important they are worth some additional, even out-of-the-box, discussion.

New ideas for innovation

The opportunity and perhaps the drive to innovate, as well as the topically popular link to “social” in the title, may explain some of the excitement the field generates. However, the actual focal areas where innovation is applied are missing things. Here are some ideas. 

At forums there is always a lot of emphasis on networking, with significant time allotted for it. This is certainly in keeping with the times, and not inappropriate. But it also sends a message of where the priorities are. By contrast, NPR’s “All Things Considered” reports an interesting, if unplanned, process innovation at a non-social entrepreneurship conference.

A social scientist, Mary Daly, had models, theories and knew “what economics think,” but did not know where to obtain the all-important data to test whether her hypothesis that those coming off welfare during President Clinton’s “workfare” reform program actually were going on disability, where states could continue to get reimbursed. This would challenge what had been seen as a public policy success.

The reporter, Chana Joffe-Walt, said, “(Mary) was at a conference. Mary spotted a young guy in the corner, looking a little nervous. She struck up a conversation and the guy started to tell her what he did for a living. Specifically, this man told Mary states were hiring his company to help them comb through their welfare rolls and identify people who could qualify for disability.” Daly said she replied: “’Really. We have written in our book that this is what’s likely happening … but you’re telling me it actually is happening.’ And he said, ‘Yes.’” Mary Daly got her confirmation.

Now that would be innovating if a conference organizer explicitly suggested networking to “nervous-looking” people, or other non-natural conversationalists, during the break!

Adriana Herrera, chief executive of Fashioning Change, critiques one social entrepreneur, Toms Shoes, whose big idea is to donate one pair of shoes to poor children for each pair it sells as “not doing more to change the underlying problem” of poverty. Further, she states, “imagine the positive impact Toms could have if it were to use every decision in its supply chain to address the causes of poverty,” including manufacturing. While Toms Shoes seems like a good social entrepreneur, Herrara is raising the bar. Meeting it would take more degrees of innovation.

Another idea would be to extend the usual emphasis on starting one organization (or program) and taking it to scale, to catalyzing change (albeit in smaller individual doses) via many other social entrepreneurs, and helping them by providing some of what they are lacking, even what they had not known they were missing.

If an idea is really transformational, but doesn’t necessarily look like anything that came before it, would it even be recognized? It almost goes against human nature. To try to guard against missing something really “new under the sun,” it is important to make space for it. Conference organizers should send a message at the beginning of forums that as not all forms of social entrepreneurship have been invented yet; we need to be open to new types of it, kind of like a friendly alien who has assumed human form, but whose identity can be detected with patience and the right set of eyes. 

It would be nice, if futile, to try to chase down a conference organizer to talk substance (I know, I’ve tried) while their minds are focused on keeping the coffee coming. So, they could ask just before the end of conferences, “Did we miss anything really important today, something which might help push the state of the art of the social entrepreneurship field? Anyone?”

Finally, I suggest adding to the list of skills or traits cited as important to practitioners (here, here, here and here), an ability to give some thought as to when innovation is called for, and when it isn’t.

I hope these observations are seen as signs of what the field has grown up around, and not determinative of where it must remain. 

We’ll certainly provide more for willing practitioners to reflect upon in the next part of this series.

We need to keep these innovators innovating!


More on this topic