Social Entrepreneurship: An Overview
Although social entrepreneurship is not a new practice, it is only in the last few years that the term “social entrepreneur” has emerged. Social entrepreneur is used to describe persons who establish enterprises primarily to meet social objectives rather than generate personal financial profit. Though specific definitions vary, social entrepreneurship essentially boils down to using entrepreneurial approaches to solve broad social problems.
William Drayton is the person most often credited for first using the term Social Entrepreneurship to describe entrepreneurial enterprises that exist for the purpose of bringing about greater social good. Drayton is founder of Ashoka, the world’s first organization devoted entirely to promoting social entrepreneurship. The story goes that he was inspired by the Vinoda Bhave’s “Land Gift Movement,” which sought to break the cycle of poverty among India’s most poor residents by persuading wealthier people to surrender their land for a more equitable redistribution to the less fortunate.
The actual concept of social entrepreneurship stretches much farther back, all the way to the 18th and 19th centuries. Industrialist Robert Owens was one of the earliest pioneers in the field of social entrepreneurship. His first efforts centered upon opening a company store for his mill workers. The store offered workers top quality goods and prices just above wholesale cost. The purpose of this venture was not to earn money but to improve the quality of workers’ lives and give them access to goods that would otherwise be unattainable. Other early social entrepreneurs included Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Henry Durant (1829-1910), Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903) and even Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), who established the Tennessee Valley Authority to help overcome the Great Depression.
Social Entrepreneurs: The Driving Force
Social entrepreneurs are of course the driving force behind social entrepreneurship. These individuals establish social enterprises to carry out their visions. The job of a social entrepreneur is to recognize a societal problem and devise an entrepreneurial-focused solution. Social entrepreneurship helps people to help themselves by not just providing solutions but tools for change too. Social entrepreneurs seek to change the system, spread the solution and persuade entire societies to take new leaps.
Identifying and solving large-scale social problems requires a committed person with a vision and determination to persist in the face of daunting odds. Ultimately, social entrepreneurs are driven to produce measurable impact by opening up new pathways for the marginalized and disadvantaged, and unlocking society’s full potential to effect social change. Social entrepreneurs are not just dreamers, but they are doers as well. Tackling social problems head-on and finding better, more sustainable solutions is their key ability. They are the people who look beyond the boundaries of social and economic barriers to generate sustainable, world-class ideas for local and global problems.
Modern Social Entrepreneurship
Today’s social enterprises can either be for-profit ventures or nonprofit, non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In both cases, over the past several decades, the social entrepreneurship landscape has shifted even more from its philanthropic and charitable roots to a more business-based model. The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam) is one of the earliest examples of the modern social entrepreneurship model. Oxfam is an international confederation of 17 organizations working in approximately 94 countries worldwide to find solutions to poverty and what it considers injustice around the world. Newman’s Own, founded by actor Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner was the first for-profit, private sector company to donate all profits and royalties after taxes for educational and charitable purposes. Since it was founded, Newman’s Own has donated well over $200 million to various charities and causes around the world.
Social Entrepreneurship and Technology
Over the past ten years, technology has driven even greater shifts in social entrepreneurship by enabling more people around the globe to launch social enterprises. Technological advances, combined with lower costs have put technologies in the hands of more people around the globe. Technology has effectively leveled the playing field by enabling access to information and tools that support entrepreneurship. This has led to a spike in the number of young entrepreneurs launching their own business ventures. And with increasing frequency, this new generation of self-starters endeavors to direct their entrepreneurial efforts towards the greater social good rather than just being motivated by profit. But it’s not just happening in the United States but around the world, even in countries that are part of the developing world. As technologies continue to evolve and become accessible to eve more people around the globe, expect to see strong growth in the number of social entrepreneurs making their mark and improving the world in which we live.