1. Social Entrepreneurship – what is it, who does it, and why teach it?

As I’m currently taking a short course on social entrepreneurship, I thought I’d post some reflections and summaries of ideas each week as a way of consolidating my own understanding, and sharing thoughts and content with others. Feel free to comment below with any ideas/disagreements/reflections! 

The term ‘social entrepreneurship’ has certainly started to become a buzz word in UK schools, with many schools shifting entrepreneurship programmes to a social focus, and projects such as the £10 Challenge (where pupils are given £10 as seed funding to set up an initiative that raises funds for a charity) are popular initiatives to run with years 7-9. Many schools are also engaging pupils in their own home grown social entrepreneurship projects – for example both the Dragon School and Hull Collegiate have involved pupils in the developing of their own fair trade coffee brands. However, one thing that has become apparent to me and other staff is that there lacks a universally accepted understanding of social entrepreneurship, which can lead to confusion or even resistance. Does social entrepreneurship mean something as simple as finding creative and innovative solutions to social issues, or do we need to tie the concept down further?

Social entrepreneurship – a brief history

It is clear that social entrepreneurs have always existed but might have been labelled differently as activists, philanthropists, reformers, humanitarians or simply great leaders. However, Bornstein and Davis (2010) highlight the rise of social entrepreneurship as occurring through the rise of corporate power, the decline of political engagement and activism as a means for creating change, and the significant impact delivered through Grameen Bank and BRAC in the form of microfinance in Bangladesh that moved social action away from aid towards a solution that invested in people’s own capacity for driving their own change. They focused upon hiring locals, acting against corruption, measuring outcomes, ensuring efficiency and enabling people to have dignity through respectful transactions rather than charity hand outs. They consistently improved and adapted their models based on analysing outcomes and creating new solutions from ‘failures’, thus paving a path forwards for improving living conditions at great scale growing solutions from the bottom up.

Bornstein and Davis (2010) suggest, however, that the term ‘social entrepreneur’ was only popularised by the organisation Ashoka in the 1980s, founded by Drayton who recognised the power of creative, committed and action-orientated individuals to create social change at great scale. Moving forward to our current day, there are now thousands of social entrepreneurs operating in countries across the world.

Social entrepreneurship – a possible defintion

Some might argue that all entrepreneurship is ‘social’ by its very nature – that all businesses ultimately provide desirable services or products and employment, and therefore that the distinction created by ‘social’ entrepreneurship is redundant. However, it is clear to me that an individual carving a new brand of energy drink, cigarette, fast car or designer shoe is not engaging in the same kind of process, or working with the same mindset, as the ‘social entrepreneur’.

Reading several definitions and interpretations of social entrepreneurship, the key two factors that appear important to identify are:

  1. The underlying purpose of the exercise – to create an idea, product or service that improves the living conditions for communities of disadvantaged people in a sustainable manner, that could be replicated at scale (rather than it being a one-off social support project). 
  2. The process through which this initiative is created (amongst other areas): through reflective ideation/experimentation, in depth research into the market for a particular product/service/idea, careful listening to individual and community context, thorough impact evaluation methods, and constant observation.

I’ve observed that in the process of defining social entrepreneurship we can become distracted from these two core strands through the discussion of different business models  – to me it seems clear that registered charities, businesses, and non-registered organisations whether for profit or entirely non-profit can all engage in the process of social entrepreneurship, and it should be seen as this – a process – rather than a particular outcome (e.g. a sustainable business that  puts its profits back into the system with the purpose of creating social rather than financial profit).

I have also observed that many organisations seem to engage in entrepreneurship and tie social aims on after the creation of the product/service. From my perspective it is important to distinguish corporate social responsibility work or entrepreneurship with a social impact ‘add on’ from genuine social entrepreneurship which is led by the social need from the outset, and throughout the process of ideation and reflection.

To offer another definition that also encapsulates much of the above, whilst framing the idea as a ‘social value proposition’ with a particular ‘ecosystem’, Martin & Osberg (2007) in ‘Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition’ argue the following:

‘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.’

The profile of a social entrepreneur

This quote from Michiavelli’s The Prince highlights the difficulties faced when delivering a new idea that goes against the status quo, often felt by the social entrepreneur.

Bornstein and Davis (2010) outline the following as key attributed of the social entrepreneur:

  • Action-orientated – they look for an immediate solution to a problem which they have the capacity to enact themselves, rather than becoming despondent or apathetic in the face of a complex problem. They enjoy having control over their own actions and are able to act and make decisions independently.
  • ‘They locate power within themselves’ – and when they don’t have the ability to do something, they recognise that, but believe in their power to learn a new skill or gain deeper understanding from others. This might be termed a ‘growth mindset’.
  • They recognise failure as a temporary gap in understanding rather than a halting deficiency.
  • They have the capacity to listen deeply, and intentionally cultivate relationships with a diverse range of people and organisations so as to understand a problem and possible solutions from multiple angles.
  • They are able to be resilient in the face of critics and the apathy of others.
  • Most feel a deep sense of purpose rooted in the field of work they are pursuing which is a key motivating factor. For many, their work initiated from a ‘moment of obligation’ where they felt a deep sense of injustice and a subsequent calling towards action.
  • They are able to celebrate small successes on the path towards a greater impact, and recognise the value of small-scale initiatives and outcomes for success at a greater scale.
  • Being comfortable with uncertainty, and recognise that sometimes outcomes need to be achieved via small scale experimentation.

This section also highlights some of the qualities and resilience required by an effective social entrepreneur:

‘If an important new idea is to achieve major social impact, it needs a force to drive it forward that can be counted upon to provide the care, energy, resourcefulness, and stubbornness necessary to navigate the idea through the system. Social entrepreneurs must attract attention and funding, overcome apathy and opposition, shift behaviour and mobilise political will, continually improve the idea, and take care of all the details in painstaking fashion, no matter how long it takes.’ (Bornstein and Davis, 2010)

Sometimes it seems that some social entrepreneurs rely upon intuition to judge whether their strategy is having an effective impact; given the often unseen consequences of changing systems and introducing new products, I think it is vital that when teaching social entrepreneurship, we encourage individuals to trial their idea or innovation and complete a thorough impact analysis preferably using a combination of qualitative and quantitative feedback. I also believe that any idea that has large scale consequences for human living conditions should be trialed for a number of years (at least 3-5 years) before being scaled. The desire for ideas that can be ‘scaled’ can mean that a deep understanding of local context is neglected, or that people assume that what works in one instance over a short period, might be replicable to other communities, without having a thorough understanding of what exactly was causing the change that was witnessed. It is also clear that societies rapidly change, and an idea that might work one year might not create the same value proposition, the next. This needs to be considered.

I hadn’t really thought that I was a ‘social entrepreneur’ until someone else described me as one. It was explained to me that the ‘Reading Spot’ concept itself has the format of an entrepreneurial idea or was a ‘value proposition’ (its key principle recognising the opportunity in partnering UK schools via global citizenship education programs with educational needs in Ghana via community partnerships and volunteer training). This is a concept that has been constantly developed through multiple iterations across the past four years in response to feedback from multiple angles. The social needs this model responds to in Ghana include: low literacy levels, lack of educational equipment in schools, lack of a safe space and conducive environment to study, lack of electricity in evenings, youth unemployment, and lack of a support network for teachers and volunteers in remote settings.

The project also has a few elements more typically associated with ‘enterprise’ that involve profit generation via its pilot selling low cost African fiction books in communities (responding to a need for African fiction whilst raising funds locally to pay for Reading Spots maintenance costs), and a small enterprise founded with my pupils called ‘MINA clothing’ which works with craftsmen and women in Elmina to produce products that are sold to raise funds for Reading Spots local to them. We also give volunteers (particular recently graduate or current SHS students) new experiences which enable them to gain skills and demonstrate their work as change agents to future employees. In Kalpohin in Northern Ghana, the Project Lead runs a ‘Readers and Leaders’ movement which engages local graduates in reading clinics for JHS and Primary pupils whilst also building their own leadership skill set through running sessions on matters ranging from CV building to email etiquette.

Why teach social entrepreneurship in secondary schools?

I believe that anything that encourages pupils to examine social problems in depth and empathise deeply with the challenges faced by disadvantaged communities is beneficial for society and for the individual. Furthermore, encouraging individuals to have a change mindset rather than embracing apathy and existing as a bystander is, I believe, beneficial for the individual’s education in more ways than immediately apparent – other than encouraging them to find purpose in social action, it can also embed in them a sense of self-efficacy – a strong sense that they hold within them the potential to create the world that they would like to see, and develop in them the understanding and skills that they desire to take into the world in their later life.

Therefore, when social entrepreneurship is taught at secondary level, it must focus on nurturing these three key areas: genuine empathetic connection, a desire for deep social understanding, and an action-orientated growth mindset. In-depth knowledge of strategic planning, financial planning, market analysis, and analysing social impact are also important but often best developed through the process of action, and will be further developed as the pupil transitions into adult life.

Next week’s course post is on social value and identifying business opportunities – will post thoughts in a week’s time. 

For week 2:

Cat Davison 28/04/2019

3 thoughts on 1. Social Entrepreneurship – what is it, who does it, and why teach it?

  1. Wow! I found this post deeply enthralling. One of the many lessons I took home from the post was that what qualifies a project or business as a social enterprise depends, to some extent, on the drive for the project or business; whereas social enterprises may generate some income in the process of solving an identified social problem, the income had never been the motivation for the project, and the income is only (desirably) generated in order to sustain the project and widen its impact. This is not the case for the lots of profit-oriented businesses around.

    I personally think social entrepreneurship holds the key to the challenges of today’s society, more so those of the so-called developing world, considering the terrain specific nature of social enterprises. Social entrepreneurship also actively engages the target group.

    Personally I differentiate social enterprises from other businesses by how central marketing and advertising are to the sustenance of the project. So if your business thrives by building in the target market an otherwise irrational thirst for consumption, however positively your products and services might be impacting their (the target group’s) lives, I wouldn’t call you a social enterprise.

    Keep these coming Cat. Together, we can think and innovate Reading Spot into a more sustainable organisation for wider impact!

    1. Just saw this Ali – thank you for commenting.

      So are you saying that you would not class a business as a ‘social enterprise’ if it engaged in some sort of ‘unethical’ practice in the process? I guess that encouraging consumers to buy products that do not match their needs, in itself, undermines or reduces social profit? I guess this example is one of many ways in which a business might act unethically – e.g. by excluding certain groups, giving workers bad conditions.

      However, I don’t think you’d be right to say that all businesses try to create a market for products that are not genuinely desired (and therefore it cannot be the only distinguishing factor of a social enterprise). Many businesses tap into a genuine social need (e.g. an accountancy firm might try to get clients that need accountants, or a dairy farm might simply be meeting a local need for milk).

      I’m definitely constantly in the process of updating the Reading Spots model, but think it actually as a firm foundation in the principles of effective social enterprise – now the task is to consider how these community centres and engaged volunteer networks can be used to have the maximum possible social impact (and to think about how we go about measuring that…!)

  2. Hi Cat,

    I’ve enjoyed reading this, a subject close to my heart that I’ve missed discussing and working on in Schools. I’m in the process of integrating this in my new role and I’m pleased for the reflections in which I can draw upon in the coming months. Keep up the good work work and brain food!

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