What Social Entrepreneurship Is (and Isn’t)

aNewDomain.net—There’s a wave of idealism sweeping through elite business and academic circles, and its name is social entrepreneurship.

Image credit: Madison Andrews

It’s the idea that entrepreneurial principles can be applied to systemic social problems. J. Gregory Dees explained it well on October 31, 1998, when he said, “It combines the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline, innovation, and determination commonly associated with, for instance, the high-tech pioneers of Silicon Valley.” He goes on to observe that, “many governmental and philanthropic efforts have fallen short of our expectations.”

That statement resonates even more today. On the heels of an economic collapse, the notion that the public sector is powerless to correct our most difficult social problems seems to have taken root in our collective consciousness. It’s little wonder that bright MBA candidates and recent graduates are so enthralled with the idea of doing good from within the private sector. Especially if they can avoid the divisive arena of politics and make money while doing so.

(Click here for a helpful infographic that explains social entrepreneurship from Good.is.)

As much as I admire these idealistic, service-oriented young people, I find their faith in the private sector troublesome. Innovative, plucky start-ups can develop a cheap water purification system or sell eco-friendly light fixtures. But there are some social issues that outstrip the abilities of private enterprise. Can a start-up ensure that no child goes to school without having breakfast and lunch? Can a start-up ease the burden of payroll tax increases that will cost the average American household approximately $1,000 each year?

The answer is no, they can’t. These are systemic problems that require innovators to get involved in messy public policy debates. It’s much more comfortable to remain immersed in the field of social entrepreneurship, where politics are almost never part of the conversation.

Why? Because as any entrepreneur knows, politics is rarely good business, which is why a large portion of these entrepreneurial efforts are directed abroad, or toward non-controversial domestic issues.

It’s a shame. We need the talent and enthusiasm of young social entrepreneurs in government, not only to combat larger issues, but to improve the economy as well. John Cassidy noted in a recent New Yorker blog post,

“In the first quarter of the year, overall government expenditures—spending at the federal, state, and local level—declined by more than four per cent, according to the Commerce Department. And this fall in outlays deducted almost a full percentage point from overall G.D.P. growth.”

Meanwhile, American businesses are enjoying record earnings. That combined with an uptick in consumer spending and the housing market has allowed for slow and steady overall G.D.P. growth since 2011. Social entrepreneurs can certainly contribute to that growth. What they can’t do is save the economy on their own, and they can’t solve all of our social problems.

Our best and brightest young people are unlikely to shift gears any time soon. Anand Giridharadas got it right in a July 15, 2011, New York Times Opinionator post, “These organizations fulfill bright people because their mission reflects the average human being’s complex blend of altruism and selfishness. We want to save the world, profit from it and feel smart, all at once.”

Madison Andrews is a writer, editor, and designer living in Austin, Texas. She is founder and editor of madskillsvocabulary.com. Email her at [email protected], find her on tumblr, or follow her @madskillsvocab.

Madison Andrews
Madison Andrews is a writer, editor, and designer living in Austin, Texas. She is founder and editor of madskillsvocabulary.com.
Madison Andrews
Madison Andrews
Tags: Business,Entrepreneurship