How to thrive in turbulent times, improve organizational sustainability, and generate significant social impact are crucial questions currently confronting many nonprofit leaders and boards. There appears to be an answer within reach, and its formula is as simple as it is powerful: You and your agency need to become more entrepreneurial.

Over the last ten years, the fascination with and interest in social entrepreneurship seem to have grown exponentially. Today, this concept has positioned itself at the very heart of discussions about the future and evolution of the nonprofit sector, as a number of nonprofit executives have “embraced social entrepreneurship as a model of management.”1 There are several reasons behind this fast development, and I want to mention two in particular.

First, despite the many constructive and positive impacts created by nonprofit organizations both locally and nationally, there exists a looming fear that our current efforts are not reaching far enough fast enough, and that traditional ways of addressing community needs and social issues lack the transformational capacity to deal with many of today’s complex and new social problems. In other words, the search is on for a new paradigm—a “game-changer”— based on fresh and different ways to create systemic change.

Second, corresponding with this search for novel and innovative ways to deal with social issues, a new generation of philanthropists and institutional donors has been eager to promote the idea that the key to solving all sorts of pressing social predicaments is to be found in business principles and practices. As the story goes, the challenges and perceived inefficiencies of our current approach to social problems will, as described it, “ultimately be properly managed, or maybe even solved, when desperate governments and NGOs finally surrender their ideologies and tap the private sector for help.”2

Social entrepreneurship has united these two ideas to form a powerful fusion from which a new approach is indeed emerging, one that is backed by high-profile advocates like Bill Clinton and Nobel Peace Prize–winner Muhammad Yunus. The nonprofit literature has also noted that the means and tactics of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise “[are] being accorded a status of—if not quite a panacea—then at least a significantly important emergence in the societal management of key social needs.”3

Despite the tremendous energy and excitement surrounding social entrepreneurship, many nonprofit practitioners find it a highly elusive and difficult topic. I believe that one of the fundamental reasons behind this elusiveness lies within the social entrepreneurship phenomenon itself. More specifically, in contrasting what is being said with what we know about this phenomenon, I have started to believe that in many aspects, social entrepreneurship is a fetish, an object of desire—more important for what it symbolizes than for its substance
and applicability to nonprofits. My purpose here, then, is to discuss some of these symbolic properties and
illustrate what makes them powerful, but also what makes them problematic.

Social Entrepreneurship as Dream Catcher

What exactly does it take to be more (socially) entrepreneurial? Given the praise for the concept and the frequent calls for a more entrepreneurial nonprofit sector, one might think this basic and crucial question has an obvious answer, which is why it is almost ironic that one of the few areas of agreement in this field is that there is no agreement about how to define or operationalize social entrepreneurship. But rather than undermining its legitimacy, this lack of precision has only added to the mystique and power vested in the social entrepreneurship phenomenon. Absent any right or wrong way to conceptualize social entrepreneurship, it has transcended into a shape-shifter that can take on almost any form— or, as Humpty Dumpty formulated it: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” This becomes evident when one considers the vast number of activities that all manage to fit under the social entrepreneurship conceptual umbrella, ranging from seemingly vague efforts to be more “creative,” “innovative,” and “bold” to more targeted strategies such as the application of business/market principles or the creation of earned income–generating programs. As a consequence, there is a huge smorgasbord of options and recommendations from which nonprofits can pick and choose.

The obvious problem with this Humpty Dumpty aspect of social entrepreneurship is that a concept that means everything means nothing, and therefore has virtually no utility for practitioners. For example, how will nonprofits be able to differentiate entrepreneurial actions from non-entrepreneurial actions? How and in what way do the various social entrepreneurship menu items differ from one another, and do organizations need to use all of them to be entrepreneurial? Nonprofit managers and boards will find that it is far from easy to get precise answers to these types of questions. But rather than opting for clarity, advocates have skillfully used the plasticity of social entrepreneurship to craft it into a vessel for carrying the ideas, dreams, and hopes of a new and improved nonprofit sector. By predominantly stressing intangible qualities, the social entrepreneurship debate recurrently manage to sidestep the uncomfortable challenge of being specific or concrete. In other words, a key reason why it is so hard to find a specific and concrete answer to the initial question above regarding what exactly it takes to be more socially entrepreneurial is that what often matters is not how to be socially entrepreneurial but rather what social entrepreneurship stands for.

When we look at social entrepreneurship from such a symbolic perspective, we can also see that one of its principal symbolic assets is what it promises. This imagery has indeed been very successful in captivating many nonprofits, foundations, and policy makers. Today it seems virtually impossible to find any aspect of nonprofit organizational life that is not alleged to benefit from being a bit more entrepreneurial. This feature is further accentuated as nonprofits struggle to find their way in times of turbulence and uncertainty.

As Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal have pointed out, when faced with confusion and ambiguity we often turn to symbols that can provide some sense of direction and help anchor hope and faith for the journey ahead.4 Social entrepreneurship neatly fits this description, as it promises a better tomorrow. As stated by many social entrepreneurship evangelists, by embracing the role of social entrepreneur, we charge our organizations and ourselves with the capacity to transform our communities and even the world into a better place. But it is here, at the very core of the symbolic power vested in social entrepreneurship, that we also find one of its greatest limitations: no matter what nonprofits want, they cannot engage in something they do not fully understand how to do. Impetus does not equal ability, and as several social entrepreneurship scholars have indicated, until we know more about the determinants of social entrepreneurship, this critical shortcoming will remain for nonprofits to wrestle with.5 So what if we really don’t know what “it” is that fuels this notion that social entrepreneurship makes a difference? How do we know it works?

Success Stories

Based on the numerous stories, dramas,