What is Social Entrepreneurship Anyway?

That is a question we frequently received when we began planning SEcon 2012, and it still persists. Actually, in May, 2001, J. Gregory Dees wrote in an article entitled THE MEANING OF “SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP,” that the term “combines the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline” and “the social mission is explicit and central.” He started with the idea that Peter Drucker developed in INNOVATION AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP that “an entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.” He concluded that “social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector by:

  • Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value),
  • Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission,
  • Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaption, and learning,
  • Acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand, and
  • Exhibiting heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created”

BUT…that is just one definition. In an article entitled SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP: WHY WE DON’T NEED A NEW THEORY AND HOW WE MOVE FORWARD FROM HERE by Peter A. Dacin, M. Tina Dacin, and Margaret Matear, there is a table that includes 37 definitions:

Source Definition
1. Alvord, Brown, & Letts (2004) [C]reates innovative solutions to immediate social problems and mobilizes the ideas, capacities, resources, and social arrangements required for sustainable social transformations. (p. 262)
2 Austin, Stevenson, & Wei-Skillern (2006) [S]ocial entrepreneurship as innovative, social value creating activity that can occur within or across the nonprofit, business, or government sectors. (p. 2)
3. Bornstein (2004) Social entrepreneurs are people with new ideas to address major problems who are relentless in the pursuit of their visions . . . who will not give up until they have spread their ideas as far as they possibly can. (pp. 1–2)
4. Boschee & McClurg (2003) A social entrepreneur is any person, in any sector, who uses earned income strategies to pursue a social objective, and a social entrepreneur differs from a traditional entrepreneur in two important ways: Traditional entrepreneurs frequently act in a socially responsible manner. . . . Secondly, traditional entrepreneurs are ultimately measured by financial results. (p. 3)
5. Cho (2006) [A] set of institutional practices combining the pursuit of financial objectives with the pursuit and promotion of substantive and terminal values. (p. 36)
6. Dart (2004) [Social enterprise] differs from the traditional understanding of the nonprofit organization in terms of strategy, structure, norms, [and] values, and represents a radical innovation in the nonprofit sector. (p. 411)
7. Dees (2001) Social entrepreneurs are one species in the genus entrepreneur. They are entrepreneurs with a social mission. (p. 2)
8. Drayton (2002) [They] have the same core temperament as their industry-creating, business entrepreneur peers. . . . What defines a leading social entrepreneur? First, there is no entrepreneur without a powerful, new, system change idea. There are four other necessary ingredients: creativity, widespread impact, entrepreneurial quality, and strong ethical fiber. (p. 124)
9. Harding (2004) They are orthodox businesses with social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximize profit for shareholders and owners. (p. 41)
10. Hartigan (2006) [E]ntrepreneurs whose work is aimed at progressive social transformation. . . . A business to drive the transformational change. While profits are generated, the main aim is not to maximize financial returns for shareholders but to grow the social venture and reach more people in need effectively. Wealth accumulation is not a priority—revenues beyond costs are reinvested in the enterprise in order to fund expansion. (p. 45)
11. Haugh (2006) Social enterprise is a collective term for a range of organizations that trade for a social purpose. They adopt one of a variety of different legal formats but have in common the principles of pursuing business- led solutions to achieve social aims, and the reinvestment of surplus for community benefit. Their objectives focus on socially desired, nonfinancial goals and their outcomes are the nonfinancial measures of the implied demand for and supply of services. (Ch. 1, p. 5)
12. Hibbert, Hogg, & Quinn (2005) Social entrepreneurship can be loosely defined as the use of entrepreneurial behaviour for social ends rather than for profit objectives, or alternatively, that the profits generated are used for the benefit of a specific disadvantaged group. (p. 159)
13. Hockerts (2006) Social purpose business ventures are hybrid enterprises straddling the boundary between the for-profit business world and social mission-driven public and nonprofit organizations. Thus they do not fit completely in either sphere. (p. 145)
14. Korosec & Berman (2006) Social entrepreneurs are defined as individuals or private organizations that take the initiative to identify and address important social problems in their communities. (pp. 448–449) [O]rganizations and individuals that develop new programs, services, and solutions to specific problems and those that address the needs of special populations. (p. 449)
15. Lasprogata & Cotten (2003) Social entrepreneurship means nonprofit organizations that apply entrepreneurial strategies to sustain themselves financially while having a greater impact on their social mission (i.e., the “double bottom line”). (p. 69)
16. Light (2006) A social entrepreneur is an individual, group, network, organization, or alliance of organizations that seeks sustainable, large-scale change through pattern-breaking ideas in what or how governments, nonprofits, and businesses do to address significant social problems. (p. 50)
17. Mair & Mart ́ı (2006) [A] process involving the innovative use and combination of resources to pursue opportunities to catalyze social change and/or address social needs. (p. 37)
18. Martin & Osberg (2007) 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 hegemony; 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. (p. 35)
19. Masseti (2008) Introduce the Social Entrepreneur Matrix (SEM). Based on whether a business has a more market- or socially driven mission and whether or not it requires profit, the SEM combines those factors that most clearly differentiate social entrepreneurism from traditional entrepreneurism. (p. 7)
20. Mort, Weerawardena, & Carnegie (2003) [A] multidimensional construct involving the expression of entrepreneurially virtuous behaviour to achieve the social mission, a coherent unity of purpose and action in the face of moral complexity, the ability to recognise social value-creating opportunities and key decision-making characteristics of innovativeness, proactiveness and risk-taking. (p. 76)
21. Peredo & McLean (2006) [S]ocial entrepreneurship is exercised where some person or group: (1) aim(s) at creating social value, either exclusively or at least in some prominent way; (2) show(s) a capacity to recognize and take advantage of opportunities to create that value (“envision”); (3) employ(s) innovation, ranging from outright invention to adapting someone else’s novelty, in creating and/or distributing social value; (4) is/are willing to accept an above-average degree of risk in creating and disseminating social value; and (5) is/are unusually resourceful in being relatively undaunted by scarce assets in pursuing their social venture. (p. 64)
22. Perrini & Vurro (2006) We define SE as a dynamic process created and managed by an individual or team (the innovative social entrepreneur), which strives to exploit social innovation with an entrepreneurial mindset and a strong need for achievement, in order to create new social value in the market and community at large. (Ch. 1, p. 4)
23. Prabhu (1999) [P]ersons who create or manage innovative entrepreneurial organizations or ventures whose primary mission is the social change and development of their client group. (p. 140)
24. Roberts & Woods (2005) Social entrepreneurship is the construction, evaluation, and pursuit of opportunities for transformative social change carried out by visionary, passionately dedicated individuals. (p. 49)
25. Robinson (2006) I define social entrepreneurship as a process that includes: the identification of a specific social problem and a specific solution . . . to address it; the evaluation of the social impact, the business model and the sustainability of the venture; and the creation of a social mission-oriented for-profit or a business-oriented nonprofit entity that pursues the double (or triple) bottom line. (p. 95)
26. Schwab Foundation A social enterprise is an organization that achieves large scale, systemic and sustainable social change through a new invention, a different approach, a more rigorous application of known technologies or strategies, or a combination of these. (http://www.schwabfound.org/sf/SocialEntrepreneurs/index.htm)
27. Seelos & Mair (2005) Social entrepreneurship combines the resourcefulness of traditional entrepreneurship with a mission to change society. (p. 241)
28. Sharir & Lerner (2006) [T]he social entrepreneur is acting as a change agent to create and sustain social value without being limited to resources currently in hand. (p. 3)
29. Skoll Foundation [T]he social entrepreneur aims for value in the form of transformational change that will benefit disadvantaged communities and ultimately society at large. Social entrepreneurs pioneer innovative and systemic approaches for meeting the needs of the marginalized, the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised—populations that lack the financial means or political clout to achieve lasting benefit on their own. (http://www.skollfoundation.org/aboutsocialentrepreneurship/whatis.asp)
30. Tan, Williams, & Tan (2005) A legal person is a social entrepreneur from t1 to t2 just in case that person attempts from t1 to t2, to make profits for society or a segment of it by innovation in the face of risk, in a way that involves that society or segment of it. (p. 358)
31. Thompson (2002) [P]eople with the qualities and behaviours we associate with the business entrepreneur but who operate in the community and are more concerned with caring and helping than “making money.” (p. 413)
32. Thompson, Alvy, & Lees (2000) [P]eople who realize where there is an opportunity to satisfy some unmet need that the state welfare system will not or cannot meet, and who gather together the necessary resources (generally people, often volunteers, money and premises) and use these to “make a difference.” (p. 328)
33. Thompson & Doherty (2006) Social enterprises—defined simply—are organisations seeking business solutions to social problems. (p. 362)
34. Tracey & Jarvis (2007) [T]he notion of trading for a social purpose is at the core of social entrepreneurship, requiring that social entrepreneurs identify and exploit market opportunities, and assemble the necessary resources, in order to develop products and/or services that allow them to generate “entrepreneurial profit” for a given social project. (p. 671)
35. Waddock & Post (1991) [A]n individual who brings about changes in the perception of social issues. . . . [They] play critical roles in bringing about “catalytic changes” in the public sector agenda and the perception of certain social issues. (p. 393)
36. Yunus (2008) [A]ny innovative initiative to help people may be described as social entrepreneurship. The initiative may be economic or non-economic, for-profit or not-for-profit. (p. 32)
37. Zahra, Gedajlovic, Neubaum, & Shulman (2009) Social entrepreneurship encompasses the activities and processes undertaken to discover, define, and exploit opportunities in order to enhance social wealth by creating new ventures or managing existing organizations in an innovative manner. (p. 5)

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Ron Monark

Ron Monark is Managing Director of the Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center and teaches graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship courses at the Mason School of Business.

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