For the past two years, I’ve been increasingly attached to social entrepreneurship, both its theory and practice. The love affair began with a summer program in Petersburg, Va. in 2010. I participated in the program as a naïve freshman at The College of William and Mary, having no idea what social entrepreneurship was or any idea about what I wanted to do with my life. This program allowed me to begin thinking about service in a way that I never had before, looking at how business can play a role in social change. As I began learning about social entrepreneurship, I also began questioning the model because I didn’t understand where it came from and I didn’t understand where it was going.
There is no inventor of social entrepreneurship. The idea seemed to just spring forth like Venus in Roman mythology: It simply appeared on the horizon. The problem lies in the fact that social entrepreneurship isn’t as novel as it may appear. Unlike Venus, social entrepreneurship did not arise out of nothing; the concept seems to be a menagerie of ideas that have been building for some time with certain individuals (like Greg Dees, Bill Drayton, Mohammad Yunus and so on) contributing something along the way. We can begin with the private sector since social entrepreneurship is rooted in the private sector. We can even travel back to the creation of political liberalism to see the very beginnings of social entrepreneurship, make our way to the Enlightenment and then to Adam Smith. We can also see the ideas behind social entrepreneurship in the acts of past individuals known for their philanthropy and service.
However, people did not begin using the term social entrepreneurship until the past forty years, and it was only in the last twenty or so years that the field began to expand into what it is today.
According to David Bornstein and Susan Davis, the beginnings of what we know of social entrepreneurship began in Bangladesh. It began with the notion that international aid, after civil wars and natural disasters, assaulted the country. With the creation of organizations like the Grameen Bank and Ashoka, social entrepreneurship gained a standing in the world of international development. The idea was to create self-sustaining aid.
This lack of history however, can impede the future growth of social entrepreneurship. Without cohesive, concrete history, the role of defining social entrepreneurship cannot be filled. I will be honest and say that I change my definition of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise a lot. Not having a solid definition means that the field is fluid and ever-changing and I am not sure if that is necessarily a good or bad thing.
The issue of definition and message seems to be a pervasive problem within the field. A recent study done in the United Kingdom showed that only a third of people polled knew what a social enterprise was, but after being told what it was, individuals were more likely to want to buy a service through a social enterprise. A lack of definition means a lack of message.
I recently read the criteria for a social entrepreneurship competition. One criterion mandated that the organization competing could not be a nonprofit organization. I didn’t really understand that criterion because most of my experience in social entrepreneurship comes from the nonprofit sector. The summer program mentioned above is a nonprofit organization. I continue to be involved in social entrepreneurial activities via a nonprofit organization. Yet, the foundation that is sponsoring the competition subscribes to a different definition of social entrepreneurship than the organization I worked.
Further, one reason that the history of social entrepreneurship may be clouded in mystery might have something to do with the fact that the field is till evolving. Social entrepreneurship does not always equate to microfinance anymore. It evolves. The term arose because the realization of the concept finally arose. It wasn’t simply philanthropy, and it wasn’t just business. For these social change missions, the approach was different but the results were the same.
The results were aimed at social change, and those results still motivate the social entrepreneur of today. Bornstein and Davis write, “[s]ocial entrepreneurship is a process by which citizens build or transform institutions to advance solutions to social problems, such as poverty [...] human rights abuses and corruption, in order to make life better for many. That is one definition. There are countless others.
The field needs to be defined. We may never know exactly when the idea of social entrepreneurship arose in someone’s thought, but we can know what direction it is going.
Comment below, and let’s get the conversation started.
Alex Cooper is our i2i Social Impact Intern, pursuing a B.A. in Government and Community Studies of Eastern Europe at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He loves social justice, politics, political sociology, pop culture and trashy documentaries. In the rare moments when he is not on his computer tweeting, researching or reading various news articles on the web, you can find him at coffee shops or with friends enjoying the small things in life and laughing loudly.