Enterprise and Small Business Principles

What is social entrepreneurship?

Social entrepreneurship. . . combines the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline, innovation, and determination commonly associated with, for instance, the high-tech pioneers of Silicon Valley.

Professor J. Gregory Dees, Duke University (1998: 1)

The title ‘social entrepreneurship’ has been applied (often reflexively) to a startling range of organisations and activities from grass-roots campaigns to the ‘social’ actions of multi-national corporations. Despite widespread agreement among community activists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), policy makers, the media, interna­tional institutions, leading thinkers, academics and commercial managers about the impressive growth in innovative social action globally (Leadbeater, 1997; Salamon and Anheier, 1999; Borzaga and Defourney, 2001; Bornstein, 2004), the boundaries of social entrepreneurship as a distinct model of effective social intervention remain highly contested.

Research into social entrepreneurship emerged from work on non-profit organisa­tions that first developed in the 1970s. Etzioni (1973) suggested that neither the state nor the market would propel innovations and reforms of society but rather that the catalyst would be ‘a third alternative’ that could combine the efficiency of the entrepre­neurial market-place with the welfare orientation of the state. However, Chamberlain (1977) first coined the term ‘social entrepreneur’ in the context of the putative emer­gence of a new breed of socially motivated business executives who would commit themselves and their corporations to constructive attacks on social problems by chan­ging the rules under which the corporations operate.

Subsequent academic research into social entrepreneurship has largely been focused on defining what it is, and what it does and does not have in common with commercial entrepreneurial activity (Dees, 1994; Boschee, 1995, 2001a; Leadbeater, 1997, 1998; Dees, 1998a; Dees et al., 2001, 2002; Brinckerhoff, 2000; Austin et al., 2003; Drayton, 2002; Thompson et al., 2000; Thompson, 2002; Sullivan Mort et al., 2003). However, despite some promising work thus far, the research gaps remain considerable. Indeed, in a review of the available published research on social entrepreneurship, Johnson (2000: 5) commented that: ‘Defining what social entrepreneurship is, and what its con­ceptual boundaries are, is not an easy task. . . in part because the concept is inherently complex, and in part because the literature in the area is so new that little consensus has emerged on the topic.’

In the absence of an established literature on the subject, the complexity at the heart of the socially entrepreneurial concept - embracing as it does both contextual flexib­ility and wide operational diversity - will be tackled here via an analysis of its two distinct constituent dimensions: the entrepreneurial and the social. Whilst both of these terms are problematic and contingent, particularly the latter, a careful consideration of each sets the boundaries of the socially entrepreneurial space. In essence, social entre­preneurship may be defined as ventures that address social issues as their prime strategic objective and do so in an innovative and creative fashion. However, the next three sections will provide a richer formulation of this broad-brush definition to draw out a more detailed set of meanings.

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