photo courtesy of Time
Holding a sign on a street corner, building a community library, and establishing the microcredit industry: can all of these actions be considered equal, or more specifically, examples of social entrepreneurship? In striving to find worth in our own social concern and charitable efforts, it can seem attractive and convenient to categorize our efforts under the same name as recognized drivers of social change, such as Steve Jobs and Muhammad Yunus, father of the microcredit industry. But placing all social actions under the banner of social entrepreneurship only adds to confusion about the aim and potential of each venture.
Social Entrepreneurship has been gaining great recognition as of late, but what differentiates it from the work that some of us are already doing? In a Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition,” Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg distinguish between common public engagement and the more expansive social entrepreneurship efforts.
Social Entrepreneurship is not a social service. The difference lies in the outcome of a project. A social service provides a community need, whereas social entrepreneurship yields a broad and long-term impact that extends beyond one’s immediate environment. Using an example, Martin and Osberg state,
“ Imagine that Andrew Carnegie had built only one library rather than conceiving the public library system that today serves untold millions of American citizens. Carnegie’s single library would have clearly benefited the community it served. But it was his vision of an entire system of libraries creating a permanent new equilibrium – one ensuring access to information and knowledge for all the nation’s citizens– that anchors his reputation as a social entrepreneur.”
Social Entrepreneurship is not social activism. Although characteristics such as inspiration, creativity, courage, and fortitude are vital in both systems, the orientation of participants’ actions is different. Martin and Osberg explain,
“ Instead of taking direct action, as the social entrepreneur would, the social activist attempts to create change through indirect action, by influencing others – governments, NGOs, consumers, workers, etc. – to take action. Social activists may or may not create ventures or organizations to advance the changes they seek. Successful activism can yield substantial improvements to existing systems and even result in a new equilibrium, but the strategic nature of the action is distinct in its emphasis on influence rather than on direct action.”
Due to its broad impact and direct involvement in an issue, those taking part in social entrepreneurship have the especially great task of initiating progress, while involving and consulting with those closest to the problem. Otherwise, social entrepreneurship embodies a top-down approach that doesn’t truly recognize the abilities of the individuals being helped.
In his article entitled “Is Social Entrepreneurship the Rich Saving the Poor?,” Martin Montero reinforces this point, saying, “Social enterprise empowers people so that they can amplify the great work they are doing already. It is not something done to people or for people. It should be a collaborative effort done with and chiefly by those people.” Partnering with locals to create solutions, rather than working with organizations that sweep in to provide temporary assistance, yields more sustainable results and affirms a work ethic based upon empowerment. Although social entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly trendy and is usually accompanied by extensive fan-fair, its aim relative to poverty should be very basic: reinforcing the idea that people have the capability to succeed, and presenting them with opportunities to flourish.
Montero continues, “Social entrepreneurship is not about elitist fellowships, conferences, summits, accelerators, coworking spaces, or contests. Social entrepreneurship is not about charity or even about philanthropy, and it’s certainly not about wealth redistribution. Social entrepreneurship is about opportunity and power distribution.”
In the context of social entrepreneurship, power distribution should be seen as encouraging people to recognize their creative capacity and then opening channels in which these abilities can be unleashed. Of course, this mission should apply to all acts of public engagement, be they direct or indirect. But, those with resources great enough to shift societal trends have the especially great responsibility of making sure these developments consistently recognize the dignity of the human person and his/her ability to create prosperity. These trends may entail a dynamic change in the way one accesses a material good or service, or advance an opportunity that enables individuals and communities to gain increased economic standing. In any case, such initiatives must first and foremost engage those directly affected by their work. Otherwise, the parties involved, the recipients, and the project itself will not reach maximum potential.