I am in Buenos Aires for the next four months, theoretically in search of an answer to the following question: is social entrepreneurship all it’s cracked up to be?
The idea behind the study arose from the desire to understand what exactly is the best approach to development – in other words to the eradication of poverty or to the “expansion of human freedoms” (Amartya Sen). Development literature at this point has visited and revisited the flaws of government top-down initiatives (politically motivated, bureaucratic and inefficient, disconnected from “target population,” dependency-creating) as well as those of NGO bottom-up initiatives (small-scale, scattered impact, donor dependency).
In contrast to these approaches, social entrepreneurship promises to be locally-powered, innovative, scalable, and system-changing. The question that follows then is: does social entrepreneurship, when practiced on the ground, keep that promise? In order to answer that, one first has to answer a more fundamental question: what exactly is social entrepreneurship?
According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review1, it is not simply a question of starting a business that seeks a return in the form of social change before financial profits. It is about bringing the essential elements that define an entrepreneur in any field – “an exceptional ability to see and seize upon new opportunities, the commitment and drive required to pursue them, and an unflinching willingness to bear the inherent risks” (SSIR) – and apply them to achieving change in those sectors of society that have been underserved, marginalized, or excluded (with regard to health, education, citizen rights, or whichever).
As a result of the particular characteristics of the entrepreneur, the outcome of a social enterprise then differs vastly from that of a normal social service organization. Social entrepreneurs seek not the improvement of the existing status quo but the creation of an entirely new status quo. Their model for change is replicable and (if it indeed provides the expected results) is thus spontaneously adopted by others in the field, such that the social impact becomes widespread and creates an entirely new and superior status quo.
The impact then of a successful social enterprise is not simply the improvement of living conditions or the alleviation of suffering of underserved populations; rather it is systemic change, a permanent and large scale altering to the access of such populations to specific services. To give an old but useful example: social entrepreneurship is not just building another health clinic, rather it is creating a new system to change the way populations get access to proper healthcare. So, does social entrepreneurship deliver on this promise of systemic change?
After four months of interviews with social entrepreneurs in Buenos Aires, hopefully I’ll know the answer. 1 Martin, Roger and Osberg, Sally. Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition. 2007. Stanford Social Innovation Review