Social Entrepreneurs

By Robert Hickson 29/04/2013

Is social entrepreneurship a liberal feel good sop, cynical stealth marketing by big corporations, a bit of both, or something else entirely? Is it a fad, or something more durable?

Firstly, what is a social entrepreneur? Ashoka, the largest network of social entrepreneurs, defines them as

…  individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.

Social entrepreneurs have gone by that name since 1980, so it is more than a fad. Universities offer courses and centres on social entrepreneurship. Some may view that as a sure sign that it is an historical artifact of no current utility. But the Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their microfinancing initiatives [Yunus’ wikipedia entry also touches on some of the controversy surrounding Yunus and the bank, much of which seems politically motivated].

McKinsey & Company have now also produced a series of essays on social entrepreneurship, in recognition of a decade of activity by the Skoll World Forum. You can read a brief piece in Forbes, or browse the essays.

What struck me looking at some of the essays and contributors is the growing maturity of the activity and the diversity of people and organisations involved. There is the recognition that helping one village develop a supply of safe drinking water (or books for the school, etc) is good, but real impact only comes if you can repeat that for many villages. And scaling up social ventures is incredibly challenging.

The examples of social entrepreneurship aren’t just about individuals or NGOs with a social conscience filling in gaps ignored by governments. Companies, and in some cases government agencies, are also becoming involved. For some of the companies they have found helping create a solution to a problem in a developing country leads back to benefits in the products or services they provide in developed countries. And there is a growing focus on being able to measure and demonstrate success.

What’s going on in social entrepreneurship here? Not a lot. Massey University has established the New Zealand Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Research Centre, but that’s at the thinking rather than doing end of social entrepreneurship.

The NZ Centre for Social Innovation ceased most of its activity this month because of a lack of investment.  Faye Langdon, a trustee of the Centre, noted that there are a lot of small scale initiatives going on in NZ, but not much willingness to collaborate at this stage. She also noted that Canada and Australia have greater government and private sector support social entrepreneurs. But having entrepreneurs too reliant on government support strikes me as the kiss of death for such enterprise, and demonstrates a certain lack of entrepreneurial initiative. The Whanau Ora scheme had the potential to develop social entrepreneurship, but that seems increasingly unlikely as political and media attention focus on finding failures within it.

As with other types of innovation in NZ, the social kind is hard work. But in these challenging times its up to individuals to take the initiative.