What Makes a Social Entrepreneur?

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July 19, 2012; Source: Harvard Business Review (HBR Blog Network)

Echoing Green veep Lara Galinsky warns that “not everyone should be a social entrepreneur.” That’s Echoing Green’s field: supporting and jump-starting budding social entrepreneurs on their roads toward bold ideas for social change, so Galinsky ought to know what she is talking about. She probably has to give that feedback to the unsuccessful candidates for Echoing Green’s social entrepreneurship fellowships, since the organization only awards 20 to 30 a year out of 3,500 applicants.

An interesting line in Galinsky’s Harvard Business Review blog post is that these entrepreneurs, in a way, self-define by wanting to launch organizations. The purposes may be varied—“to improve education in Africa [or] to better the livelihood of women in inner city Chicago,” for example—but the notion that entrepreneurship means launching organizations rather than working with existing groups is worth underscoring. Suggesting that social entrepreneurs need other people to help them “change the world,” such as volunteers, donors, advocates, fundraisers, and communications specialists, Galinksy asks, “If everyone wants to start a new organization, who is going to do all the work?”

Galinsky tells the story about the first person she ever met, only eight years ago, who said she wanted to be a social entrepreneur, using the term as a career objective. Galinksy reports that after she nurtured the woman and helped her apply for and win an NYU social entrepreneurship award, the woman “isn’t a social entrepreneur. At least, not by Echoing Green’s definition. She hasn’t launched a ground-breaking new social business, nonprofit or hybrid. Instead, she is thinking like a social entrepreneur and applying that lens to everything she does, turning that which moves her most deeply into opportunities to serve others.”

Some might take Galinsky’s observation to imply that the graduates of the Echoing Green fellowships, who often become “stars,” need those who are less than stars to help them realize their visions for social change. Echoing Green once had that elite kind of snootiness when it was almost totally focused on fellowship candidates from a limited number of the Ivies plus Stanford, but after Cheryl Dorsey, a fellowship winner herself, took the reins of the organization in 2002, Echoing Green has developed a much more open attitude and reputation.

More to the point, however, is the notion that, for some people, the definition of a full-fledged social entrepreneur entails the creation of a new organization. That simply eludes us. Thousands and thousands of people who work for nonprofits don’t think of themselves as social entrepreneurs but do the on-the-ground legwork of making social change happen in the lives of poor people every day, sometimes operating in tough locales like Stockton, Calif. or Camden, N.J. No less than the people who deploy their talents to create new organizations, it takes entrepreneurial skill, vision, and creativity to do their work.

Let’s celebrate social entrepreneurs. Let’s also praise, honor, and appreciate the workers in the nonprofit sector whose labor as “artists, volunteers, development directors, communications specialists, donors…advocates…fundraisers, supporters who can change policies, [or even] someone to create a brochure,” as Galinsky describes them, makes them salt of the earth entrepreneurs. –Rick Cohen

  • yxu

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  • Grant

    “No less than the people who deploy their talents to create new organizations, it takes entrepreneurial skill, vision, and creativity to do their work.”

    Absolutely. But wouldn’t we call them social intrepreneurs because they are innovating and taking risks within an existing organizational structure?

  • Keenan Wellar

    I think even in the for-profit sector, people who are employees of a company are usually not seen or described as “entrepreneurs” unless they are a part of taking the company in a radical new direction, introduction a new product, etc. I think it’s the same in the non-profit sector. Those who start something (particularly if seen to contribute something new to their field) or those who take an organization or program and move it in an exciting new direction are seen as social entrepreneurs. Those who work for an NPO and do a great job are just known as great workers – although I certainly favour the idea of bringing notice to great workers in the field in ways that are similarly celebratory of great workers in the for-profit sector. Too many of our amazing staff members are out of the spotlight, and whether that is something they crave or not, it hurts our sector when we don’t demonstrate that it’s an exciting and rewarding place to be!

  • Lara Galinsky

    Thank you, Rick, for this thoughtful piece.

    One comment….

    When I attend social entrepreneurship conferences, I am reminded how the definition of a social entrepreneur is still roiling. It’s still a hot topic at conferences. Once I even saw two sessions in a row, one titled “Defining Social Entrepreneurship” and the next titled “Redefining Social Entrepreneurship.”

    Defining social entrepreneurship, and identifying the qualities of a social entrepreneur (what we call our Social Entrepreneurship Quotient) is important for groups like Echoing Green. Funders, researchers, and advocates need to be able to recognize social entrepreneurs because time and time again we have seen that these special actors have the power to foster massive world change with the right kinds of support.

    However, what’s interesting.. I have also noticed that some social entrepreneurs eschew such definition. And this may be one of the reasons why they are so successful. Freed from potentially limiting self-definitions, they are better able to innovate, cross disciplinary boundaries, and form unlikely partnerships that have the potential to revolutionize an approach to a problem.

    With this in mind, Echoing Green’s Work on Purpose program—which is based on the best practices of the lived experiences of our social entrepreneurs—teaches emerging professionals to avoid excessive self-definition. In other words, while it may be useful for those of us who want to support social entrepreneurs to define them, it may be more useful for those who want to be social entrepreneurs…not to.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Lara: Thanks for your note. I particularly enjoyed the sequential “defining” and “redefining” sessions at a conference (which one was it?). I’ve always been concerned when people spend so much time on terms and definitions that you wonder what they’re really doing with their time. The activists who ditch those kind of intellectual exercises (often meant to be the linguistic equivalent of white jackets on doctors–when a med student puts on a white jacket, he or she is a “doctor”; if you don’t have a white jacket profession, the tendency is to wear a toga of terminology that says “I’m one of these and you’re not!”) seem to be more focused on doing something to help get to the massive change you talk about. Good luck in your work at Echoing Green.