What Is Social Entrepreneurship?

What business entrepreneurs are to the economy, social entrepreneurs are to society. They may be interested in profit, but their emphasis is on social change.

What is Social Entrepreneurship?

The idea of Social Entrepreneurship has become increasingly popular as social problems in our complex modern society have grown. In a way, it is a reaction to the "˜bottom line' philosophy of modern big business with its emphasis on short-term profit to the detriment of any long-term benefit to society as a whole or the human component of the business itself. Social Entrepreneurship seeks to harness the practical dynamism of the successful businessman to enrich and help society, especially in countries where the individual is beset with problems of dire poverty and lack of opportunity.

What business entrepreneurs are to the economy, social entrepreneurs are to society. They may, like business entrepreneurs, be interested in profit, but their emphasis is on social change. They are often driven, creative individuals who exploit new opportunities, question accepted norms, and refuse to give up until they have remade the world for the better. Social entrepreneurs have the same core temperament as their business entrepreneur peers but use their talents to solve global social problems, such as why children are not learning, and why available technology is not widely used.

William Drayton, founder of the world's first organization to promote social entrepreneurship, "˜Ashoka', is credited with coining the phrase "Social Entrepreneur", to describe a person who recognizes logjams in society and finds ways to free them. This type of person envisages a universal change, and figures out how to heave whole societies on to new, rewarding paths. This type of entrepreneur strains and shoves until the job is done, identifying and solving large-scale social problems. Only an entrepreneur has the vision and determination to complete the huge tasks involved, and social entrepreneurs are agents of fundamental change.

Consider some social entrepreneurs, and some examples of their work and what it has accomplished. Sometimes the accomplishment is in the form of a spectacular scientific breakthrough or political change for the good. Other times, the change is more subtle, yet just as difficult to achieve; a fundamental change in attitude throughout society; a new way of looking at ourselves.


Susan B. Anthony was brought up as a Quaker. She soon developed a sense of justice and moral zeal. This remarkable woman dedicated her life to changing society for the better. Often the recipient of ridicule and abuse, she traveled, lectured and canvassed across the nation for women's suffrage, the abolition of slavery, women's rights to their own property and earnings, and women's labor organizations. In 1900, due to her efforts, the University of Rochester began to admit women.

John Woolman also campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the United States, and was a major force behind the British decision to ban slaveholding. This was a man who acted on his beliefs. In later life, he wore undyed clothes because slaves were used in the making of dyes. He thought slavery was spiritually damaging to the slave owners, and his efforts helped sway Quakers well before the abolition movement gained much strength in society as a whole. Not a rabble-rouser, he was a minister who held significant leadership positions in the Society.

Another outstanding woman, Florence Nightingale, was an unlikely candidate for greatness. Born to a relatively affluent family in England, she was a sickly child. But she had a social conscience, and the drive to impose her beliefs. In 1854, she took 38 women to Turkey to nurse British soldiers in the Crimean War. She suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the rest of her life, but she did not allow this to slow her down.. In 1855, still working hard, she became ill with a fever, probably brucellosis.

After the war, she campaigned for better conditions for British soldiers, and later she began a lifelong project to sanitize medical conditions in India. The strain from her stress disorder hid hard, and she was often bedridden. She turned down an offer of marriage, invented the use of graphs to enhance her notes on the Army and Hospitals, and continued to work. During the American Civil War, she advised army officials in the USA regarding the care of the sick and wounded. She became increasingly ill, and was unable to walk, but she refused to rest, continuing to work on wide-ranging medical problems.

Although her health continued to decline, she never stopped publishing and working. She was awarded the Order of Merit in 1907, and died in 1910, at the age of 90.


Good politicians and statesmen rise above electioneering and party politics to change attitudes, economic and social systems, and history. They leave lasting monuments to their social entrepreneurship.

Jean Monnet of France changed the world. This man modernized the French economy, and laid the groundwork for what is now the European Union. A project bearing his name, "European Integration in University Studies", launched in 1989, is a European Commission information project to facilitate the introduction of European integration studies in universities by means of start-up subsidies.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, US President during the great depression laid the foundations for a modern and fair society. One of his most successful creations was the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was truly a breakthrough in social as well as physical engineering.

The Tennessee Valley Authority

In the early nineteen-thirties, the Tennessee Valley was a dirt-poor, forgotten backwater. Workers eked out subsistence living on barely productive farms. Many of the inhabitants of this area were malnourished and hardly literate. Roosevelt created the TVA to harness the power of the local rivers, and revitalize the local economy by the creation of cheap energy. On the first board of the new authority were two remarkable men who, between them, changed the face of Tennessee and neighboring states. Chairman Arthur E. Morgan, and Director David E. Lilienthal were as different as chalk and cheese. Lilienthall was a hard-driving engineer who tamed the land and built huge dams that provided cheap power and prosperity. Arthur Morgan was a social reformer, who educated the local workers, built clean, affordable accommodation for the TVA workforce and saw to it that his workforce was healthy and well-educated.

The Marshall Plan and the European Union.

In 1948, President Harry S Truman set the wheels rolling for what became known as the Marshall Plan, after General George C. Marshall, who was in overall charge. Paul G. Hoffman, tactful and persuasive, and Avrill Harriman, businessmen and politician, were number two and three in the plan.

Although partly driven by America's fear that a weakened Europe would fall under Communist domination, the Marshall plan was truly a breathtaking act of social entrepreneurship. The United States poured vast sums of money into the war-torn economies of Western Europe with very little hope of getting it all back. The money was given unstintingly, with very few strings attached, and the European countries used the cash well, recovering quickly and prospering. Without the Marshall Plan, Europe today would be a very different place. Because it became economically stable, Europe remained a collection of democracies that are gradually merging into a single entity - the European Union. Despite recent differences, Europe, sixty years after the Marshall Plan, remains the United States' closest ally.

Directions in Social Entrepreneurship

In recent years, social entrepreneurs have looked beyond the traditional philanthropic and charitable approaches in order to find more effective and sustainable solutions to social problems. They are working with many tools from the world of business, and this shift in the character of social entrepreneurship is evident in a few trends that have emerged over the past twenty years.

Many societies have become less inclined to see big government, or big business as providing solutions for problems besetting the world, and there has been a shift from throwing money at large problems to systemic solutions and social investment. Across all types of government there is increased emphasis on privatization of public services, and experimentation with for-profit and hybrid forms of organization to deliver socially important goods and services, such as education and health care. There is greater scrutiny of social sector funding, and more attention to issues of impact, scale, and sustainability with the hopes of increasing the social return on investment. These trends are creating major changes in how societies around the world are dealing with social issues. They are opening the door to new forms of entrepreneurial behavior in the social sector.

The world is changing at an ever-increasing pace. We are poised to benefit from huge scientific advances in areas from medicine to microbiology to quantum mechanics. We need social entrepreneurs to help guide us through these tumultuous times so that we can enjoy and live with the brave new world that is emerging in this twenty-first century.

© High Speed Ventures 2011