The definition of social entrepreneurship (yes, again)

There’s a big article out at the moment on the Stanford Social Innovation Review, entitled “Social Entrepreneurship: the Case for Definition”. The abstract is as follows:

Social entrepreneurship is attracting growing
amounts of talent, money, and attention. But along with its increasing
popularity has come less certainty about what exactly a social
entrepreneur is and does. As a result, all sorts of activities are now
being called social entrepreneurship. Some say that a more inclusive
term is all for the good, but the authors argue that it’s time for a
more rigorous definition.”

It’s quite an interesting article with some good points and case studies, and I’d generally recommend a read of it. But, it’s central premise is that social entrepreneurship is only social entrepreneurship if it has scale or, in their words, “lead to a new superior equilibrium”. Here’s what they say:

“We define social entrepreneurship as having the following
three components:
– (1) identifying a stable but inherently unjust
equilibrium that causes the exclusion, marginalization, or suffering
of a segment of humanity that lacks the financial means
or political clout to achieve any transformative benefit on its own;

– (2) identifying an opportunity in this unjust equilibrium, developing
a social value proposition, and bringing to
bear inspiration, creativity, direct action, courage,
and fortitude, thereby challenging the stable state’s
– and (3) forging a new, stable equilibrium
that releases trapped potential or alleviates the suffering
of the targeted group, and through imitation
and the creation of a stable ecosystem around the
new equilibrium ensuring a better future for the targeted
group and even society at large.”

It’s a little bit tricky, I acknowledge, to take this out of context (do read the whole piece: it’s more understandable then), but the argument seems utterly flawed to me. They start by saying that we must first define entrepreneurship, because ‘social’ simply modifies that. OK, fine. They then go through entrepreneurship definitions (Schumpeter, Drucker et al)….and end up with:

“we believe that entrepreneurship
describes the combination of a context in which an
opportunity is situated, a set of personal characteristics required
to identify and pursue this opportunity, and the creation of a particular

OK, no argument from me there. And no argument with the characteristics they then pull out (inspiration, creativity, prone to action, courage, fortitutde). But the case studies of entrepreneurs they select are only large scale disruptive entrepreneurs: the founders of eBay and Apple and so on. This means they move towards a definition of entrepreneurship which involves scale as well:

“It is through mass-market adoption, significant
levels of imitation, and the creation of an ecosystem
around and within the new equilibrium that it [the new equilibrium] first stabilizes and
then securely persists.”

Before finally moving, inexorably and inevitably, towards a definition of social entrepreneurship that involves scale as well. And those who don’t achieve scale? They are “social service providers”….:

“But unless [social service provision] is designed to
achieve large scale or is so compelling as to launch legions of
imitators and replicators, it is not likely to lead to a new superior

These types of social service ventures never break out of their
limited frame: Their impact remains constrained, their service
area stays confined to a local population, and their scope is determined
by whatever resources they are able to attract. These ventures
are inherently vulnerable, which may mean disruption or
loss of service to the populations they serve. Millions of such
organizations exist around the world – well intended, noble in
purpose, and frequently exemplary in execution – but they
should not be confused with social entrepreneurship.”

So basically, their argument is: entrepreneurship involves certain characteristics, but is also about fundamentally changing (through disruption/imitation) a sector or field on a large scale. Therefore, social entrepreneurship (and I don’t disagree with how they define the social part of this: primacy of mission etc) is the same.

[Incidentally, why these groups are “inherently vulnerable”, anymore than a large organisation set up by an entrepreneur is beyond me….for another time, perhaps…]

But they can only get to this point by creating a definition of entrepreneurship that involves scale. Which is, well, not something you find in many definitions of the word/concept. Aren’t there small entrepreneurs?

I’d like to be really clear that we have nothing against the kind of social entrepreneurs (Yunus, Victoria Hale etc) they describe: they and the work and impact of their organisations is magnificent, and deserves to be recognised and supported. And Skoll have done wonders in promoting the movement through the Forum and supporting social entrepreneurship through their awards (the latest 2007 awardees are another impressive set of amazing people). But why must a definition (which they want to avoid confusion, and because “We are concerned that serious thinkers will also overlook
social entrepreneurship”.
) exclude those who demonstrate the same characteristics, the same entrepreneurial spirit and mindset, with the same primacy of mission, and achieving the kind of changes they discuss, but on a smaller scale?

What is wrong, for example, with differentiating between, as we recently discussed in several posts with the Shaftesbury Partnership, “system” social entrepreneurs and “community” social entrepreneurs, whilst acknowledging that some of the latter may morph into the former?

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that we cover this ground regularly and that we are more interested in getting on with delivery than going round in circles forever in this debate. But I couldn’t ignore this, particularly as this pre-eminent emphasis on scale is precisely what our talk at Skoll and forthcoming paper (on the long tail of social entrepreneurship) are intended to address.

Lest you think I’m alone in this critique, a few people have responded (here it is called a “lullaby to elites” in the comments, which is a bit strong!), but the first comment under the paper on Stanford’s own site says it pretty plainly:

“This [the article] is interesting but unfortunately just completely wrong. The vast
majority of entrepreneurs are small. This does not stop them from being
entrepreneurs. So it is with social entrepreneurs. The vast majority
are small. This does not stop them from being social entrepreneurs. How
big or influential they become is entirely irrelevant to their status,
as it is with entrepreneurs generally. Treating the extent of their
growth or influence as an indicator of their status is a category
error, like saying only large buildings with penthouses are really
buildings, and my house therefore doesn’t count as a building.
Similarly many entrepreneurs fail. This doesn’t stop them being
entrepreneurs. So it is with social entrepreneurs. Many will fail. This
doesn’t stop them being social entrepreneurs. The above argument
applies. There may be some conceivably valid reasons for wanting a
definition, such as the one given at the end of the article – that
people will be confused if you don’t – but this reason has nothing to
do with the size or influence or success of social entrepreneurs.”

Share Button

5 thoughts on “The definition of social entrepreneurship (yes, again)

  1. Good point, to isolate the issue of scale. Can entrepreneurs fail? Obviously so, but if we define “Social Entrepreneurs” as those who succeed, it would seem that by definition no social entrepreneur has ever failed. That would be strange. “Full many a flower blooms unseen.” Many a writer, for example, only finds an audience years after being neglected. No doubt many great writers died and are completely unknown. Why should a social entrepreneur not experience the same fate?

  2. Further to the other comments and responses in SSIR. Almost half of the UK workforce is employed in small (not even medium-sized) enterprises; over 90% of all enterprises are small. In this context small means ’employs less than 50 people).
    Incidentally, if you live on a sink estate in a major city and someone comes along and is prepared to improved conditions, clean up, make it safer, then that IS big. Remember scale is related to perspective – just because pespective is more difficult to describe or measure doesn’t mean we can ignore it.

  3. Absolutely. I note someone else has posted a review (as opposed to a comment), which says congratulations, before then disagreeing with the two areas we’ve all pulled out: scale and failure as part of the definition.

  4. Social Entrepreneurship New BookAlert

    There are several things going on in this arena. First, a new book is coming out in May from Harvard. Entrepreneurship in the Social Sector, coauthored by four Harvard Business School faculty, explains the critical components of this hybrid fiel…