Social Entrepreneurship Revisited

By Light, Paul C. | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Social Entrepreneurship Revisited


Light, Paul C., Stanford Social Innovation Review


Not just anyone, anywhere, in any organization can make breakthrough Change BY PAUL C. LIGHT

Social entrepreneurship i s one of the most alluring terms on the problem-solving landscape today, and is in use even in the new Obama administration. The President is quite familiar with the term and has embraced a first-of-its-kind investment fund for social entrepreneurship.

The question is not whether social entrepreneurship is a term in good currency, but what it actually means. This question motivated my three-year search for social entrepreneurship, which was funded by the Skoll and Ewing Marion Kauffman foundations.

Ashoka founder and CEO Bill Drayton first used the term "social entrepreneurship" in the early 1980s, and it continues to inspire images of audacious social change - the kind that sweeps away the old approaches to solving intractable social problems such as disease, hunger, and poverty. Like business entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship involves a wave of creative destruction that remakes society. Although we will always need traditional social services even more during times of great economic turmoil - social entrepreneurship focuses on changing the underlying dynamics that create the demand for services in the first place. Instead of treating society's distress, social entrepreneurship holds hope for eliminating the distress altogether.

Although people generally agree on this broad definition of social entrepreneurship, confusion reigns over the specifics. Some observers believe that the social entrepreneur himself or herself is the linchpin of change, whereas others focus on the idea, the opportunity for change, or the organization that provides the muscle for scaling up to maximum effect But which one of these four components comes first? Which one is most important for imagining change, launching an idea, accelerating diffusion, and sustaining impact long enough to create a wave of creative destruction?

The answer depends largely on the assumptions underlying one's notion of social entrepreneurship. My own journey through this thicket of assumptions began with an article I published in the fall 2006 Stanford Social Innovation Review, titled "Reshaping Social Entrepreneurship." In that article, I argued for an inclusive, big-tent definition of the term social entrepreneurship that acknowledged the small contributions of many people, groups, and organizations.

Since that time, though, I have drilled through hundreds of articles and books on social and business entrepreneurship, and I have surveyed 131 highly, moderately, and not-too-entrepreneurial organizations. And I discovered that many of the assumptions that I rejected in 2006 turned out to be true after all. Whereas I once believed that virtually everyone could become a social entrepreneur, I am now convinced that there are special sets of attitudes, skills, and practices that make social entrepreneurs and their work distinctive from more traditional public service. As a result, I have become much more concerned about how we can identify potential social entrepreneurs, give them the training and support they need, and increase the odds that their work will succeed.

NEW INSIGHTS

Here are four assumptions about social entrepreneurship that I initially rejected, but now accept:

1. Social entrepreneurs are not like other high achievers. I initially rejected the notion that social entrepreneurs bring unique motives, behaviors, and insights to the socially entrepreneurial process. I assumed, wrongly, that they are deflected into social entrepreneurship by the same kinds of opportunities that exist for any patternbreaking enterprise.

My research suggests otherwise. Social entrepreneurs appear to make quite deliberate decisions to solve social problems, rather than simply stumbling into their work by accident or circumstance. They are often quite sober about their decision to attack a social problem, and they usually understand the consequences of challenging the status quo. …

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