Enterprise and Small Business Principles

Introducing social entrepreneurship

Once in a rare while, the fundamental architecture of a significant part of society shifts. Over the last two and one-half decades, the organisation of the social half of society, led by social entrepreneurs, has done so. It has passed irrevocably through the tipping point from bureaucratic and monopolistic to entrepreneurial and competitive - the same transition that transformed the business half of society over the prior three centuries.

Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka (2002: 120)

Social entrepreneurship is not a new phenomenon. Whilst it may represent a newly coined term, it is hardly a novel concept. Innovative individuals and enterprising groups have been addressing social issues for centuries, as is demonstrated by the activities of extraordinary public innovators such as Florence Nightingale, Susan B. Anthony and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as the collective efforts of groups like the Rochdale Pioneers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In these examples, the individuals or groups acted as change makers challeng­ing the status quo by identifying an apparently insoluble social problem and tackling it with tenacity and vision. Their outstanding leadership towards a social end and their ability to see opportunities where others only saw hurdles further single out these charis­matic figures. Today, the same distinguishing features are also present in a new breed of social entrepreneurs and, therefore, a direct line of descent can be discerned between these extraordinary public change agents of the past and such modern-day social pioneers as Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank, Bangladesh), Fazle Abed (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee or BRAC), Chief Fidela Ebuk (Women’s Health and Economic Development Association, Nigeria), David Green (Project Impact, US), Liam Black (Furniture Resource Centre, UK) and Jeroo Billimoria (Childline, India).

However, in comparison with the past, what is notable now is that the number and range of social actors behaving entrepreneurially is far larger than at any previous point in history (Bornstein, 2004: 3-6). For example, a recent survey of socially entrepre­neurial activity in the UK suggested that new ‘social’ start-ups are emerging at a faster rate than more conventional commercial ventures (Harding and Cowling, 2004: 5). Other research has also demonstrated that employment rates in social sector ventures are significantly outstripping those in the business sector in a number of developed countries (Salamon and Anheier, 1999). While all of these new social actors will not, necessarily, be social entrepreneurs per se, the overall picture painted by such data still underpins the proposition that social entrepreneurship is growing fast worldwide. Even more significantly, the impact that social entrepreneurs are aiming to achieve is also far more ambitious than ever before. Today, social entrepreneurs are reaching huge num­bers of new stakeholders. For example, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh now serves more than two million micro-credit customers and BRAC, in the same country, is the largest single employer in the region. Moreover, social entrepreneurs are also bringing about systemic change by influencing social behaviour on a global scale. For instance, the Fair Trade movement has seen its sales internationally grow at double-digit rates for more than a decade and has helped catalyse a revolution in the way many con­sumers view their relationship with producers (Nicholls and Opal, 2005). It seems fair to say, therefore, that we live today in the age of social entrepreneurs.

However, there still remains some lack of clarity as to what social entrepreneurship actually means and, perhaps more importantly, what it is capable of achieving. This chapter aims to overcome some of the confusion around this important concept and to demonstrate the significant impact that social entrepreneurs are currently having around the world. First, the meaning of social entrepreneurship is explored in some depth, since establishing the parameters of the term remains a highly contested process. Next the drivers behind the development of social entrepreneurship internationally are traced. Following this, the spectrum of social entrepreneurship activity is set out with particu­lar reference to social enterprise. Finally, some of the future challenges facing social entrepreneurship are considered.

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