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Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1197663
SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP: A CRITICAL REVIEW
OF THE CONCEPT1
Ana María Peredo
Faculty of Business
University of Victoria
3800 Finnerty Drive
Victoria, BC V8P 5C2
tel: (250) 472-4435
fax: (250) 472-6067
Centre for Studies in Religion and Society
University of Victoria
3800 Finnerty Drive
Victoria, BC V8P 5C2
tel: (250) 472-4456
fax: (250) 721-6234
ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION IN A SPECIAL ISSUE OF
1 The authors gratefully acknowledge the helpful comments of JWB reviewers of earlier
draft of this paper.
THE JOURNAL OF WORLD BUSINESS 2006
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1197663
SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP: A CRITICAL REVIEW OF THE
This paper undertakes an analytical, critical and synthetic examination of
“social entrepreneurship” in its common use, considering both the “social” and
the “entrepreneurship” elements in the concept. On both points there is a range of
use, with significant differences marked out by such things as the prominence of
social goals and what are thought of as the salient features of entrepreneurship.
The paper concludes with the proposal of a suitably flexible explication of
the concept: social entrepreneurship is exercised where some person or persons
(1) aim either exclusively or in some prominent way to create social value of
some kind, and pursue that goal through some combination of (2) recognizing and
exploiting opportunities to create this value, (3) employing innovation, (4) tolerat-
ing risk and (5) declining to accept limitations in available resources.
The concept of social entrepreneurship has become well established in the
vocabulary used to talk about business. Popular as well as scholarly books and
articles are written about the characteristics of organizations thought to be in-
stances of social entrepreneurship. It holds a place in the curriculum of leading
business schools, and it is the subject of numerous professional and academic
meetings. There are associations devoted to studying and implementing social en-
trepreneurship, and there are numerous web sites on which one may become ac-
quainted with the concept and receive information and/or advice on putting into it
practice. There are even special editions of prominent business journals, like this
one, dedicated to the realm of social entrepreneurship.
Anyone who samples this array of material may be left wondering exactly
what social entrepreneurship is. Is it just the application of sound business prac-
tices to the operation of non-profit organizations as some seem to suggest (Reis,
1999), or is it a more radically different approach to the business of doing good?
It is said that “social entrepreneurship is emerging as an innovative approach for
dealing with complex social needs” (Johnson, 2000: 1), especially in the face of
diminishing public funding. What is it that makes this approach so promising?
Indeed part of judging whether it really is promising rests on understanding what
the phenomenon is. Commentators, both scholarly and popular, and advocates of
every kind, understand it in a variety of ways. The concept needs to be clarified
just to make those comments and that advocacy intelligible.
There are other and very practical reasons for wanting to be clear about
what constitutes social entrepreneurship. For one thing, social entrepreneurship
may call for quite different standards of evaluation when compared with standard
forms of entrepreneurship. Second, if there is reason to believe that social entre-
preneurship is a promising instrument for addressing social needs, it may call for
added support in the form of legislation and other sorts of social policy. Third, it
may well be that the mix of aptitudes and skills appropriate to successful pursuit
of social entrepreneurship differs in significant ways from the mix relevant to
success in entrepreneurship without the social component. This paper does not
attempt to settle any of these important issues, which clearly point to further re-
search questions. It is, however, meant to satisfy a necessary condition of address-
ing those matters. It is essential to begin by being clear what social entrepreneur-
ship is. This paper undertakes this fundamental task.
To begin with, the conceptual geography of the notion of “social entrepre-
neurship” is considered as that term is generally used. The paper therefore begins
with an analytic and “reportive” enquiry. Scholarly proposals as to the content of
the concept are considered, as well as less reflective uses of the idea, in many
cases testing the former against the latter. The overall aim is to discover what
characteristics of an activity are explicitly or implicitly considered relevant to ap-
plying the label “social entrepreneurship.” That investigation reveals, as men-
tioned above, a variety of distinguishable uses ranged along two continua; one
having to do with the social element in the concept, and the other concerning the
entrepreneurial component. That leads to the addition of a critical and synthetic
factor to this study. Reasons will be given for maintaining a degree of permissive-
ness in the definition while trimming off certain ranges of use that make the no-
tion insufficiently discriminating. In the conclusion of the paper, accordingly, a
suitably flexible explication of the concept is proposed; one that gathers together
certain core elements implicit in common usage while omitting certain others that
broaden its application to the point where it is hardly selective. The result, it is
hoped, will assist in recognizing and evaluating what goes on in the real world of
dealing with social problems.
A conceptual assumption is made in this paper concerning the relation-
ship between social entrepreneurship and what is called “social enterprise.” Social
enterprise as an activity (normally represented by using the term without a definite
or indefinite article) is commonly equated (as several quotations below will illus-
trate) with social entrepreneurship, and for purposes of this article we will accept
that equation. It is assumed in what follows that elucidating the concept of social
entrepreneurship amounts to elucidating the notion of social enterprise as an ac-
tivity, and the practice of other writers in using the terms interchangeably is fol-
lowed here. The relation between social entrepreneurship and social enterprises,
i.e. particular organizations or institutions, is more complex, but will be left at an
intuitive level for purposes of this paper.
One can ask fruitfully both what makes social entrepreneurship social, and
what makes it entrepreneurship. On both points, there is a variety of outlook.
What makes social entrepreneurship entrepreneurship?
Dees speaks for many when he declares, “Social entrepreneurs are one
species in the genus entrepreneur” (1998: 3). One place to begin a review of so-
cial entrepreneurship, therefore, is with a consideration of what constitutes the
genus. In what follows, it is assumed that defining “entrepreneurship” is logically
linked with defining “entrepreneur” in that entrepreneurship is what entrepreneurs
do when they are being entrepreneurs. Defining either term defines the other by
There is no scholarly consensus on what it is that entrepreneurs do when
they are being entrepreneurial. Venkataraman, editor of Journal of Business Ven-
turing, has observed: “…there are fundamentally different conceptions and inter-
pretations of the concept of entrepreneur and the entrepreneurial role, consensus
on a definition of the field in terms of the entrepreneur is perhaps an impossibil-
ity” (Venkataraman, 1997: 120). The approach here will be, once again, to ex-
plore the range of common use and to argue for a “precising definition” (Salmon,
1995) drawn from that range.
The “minimalist” sense
There is a relatively unsophisticated use of “entrepreneur,” especially
common in the popular press, according to which an entrepreneur is simply one
who starts up and/or runs a small business. Some dictionary definitions reflect this
use. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, for instance, defines “entrepreneur” as “A
person who starts or organizes a commercial enterprise, especially one involving
financial risk” (Barber, 1998: 467). You could call this a “minimalist” under-
standing of entrepreneurship. On this reading, a social entrepreneur will simply be
someone who organizes and/or operates a venture or corporation, which features
social goals in one of the ways sketched later in this paper.
The “business methods” approach
According to a somewhat enlarged, but still “popular” understanding of
entrepreneurship, the entrepreneurial element in social entrepreneurship is linked
closely with borrowing from the outlook and methods of market-driven enter-
prise. “The key to social enterprise,” writes Pomerantz (2003: 26),
involves taking a business-like, innovative approach to the mission
of delivering community services. Developing new social enter-
prise business ventures is only one facet of social entrepreneurship.
Another facet is maximizing revenue generation from programs by
applying principles from for-profit business without neglecting the
Many accounts in the press and in material used by NFPs and others for training
reflect this “business methods”emphasis.
In favor of a more developed sense
Students of social entrepreneurship who concentrate on its entrepreneurial
facet are, however, inclined to draw more specifically on the scholarly literature
on entrepreneurship and apply it to the social sphere. The result is a more de-
manding definition of the entrepreneurial component of social entrepreneurship,
and this is arguably the more appropriate approach to take to understanding entre-
preneurship in general and social entrepreneurship in particular. In outlining the
existing range of use of the concept, it must recognized that social entrepreneur-
ship is sometimes understood merely as the initiation and/or management of a so-
cial enterprise, perhaps with some explicit recognition of any risks involved in
these activities. But it seems that the more exacting definition brings into play fea-
tures that make the notion of entrepreneurship, including social entrepreneurship,
a more useful conceptual tool. The contention of this paper is that the more schol-
arly understanding of the concept allows for the recognition within the body of
those who launch or administer (social) enterprises a set of individuals and groups
who have the capacity to create significantly greater value, often in a shorter pe-
riod of time, and thus make uncommon contributions to the world of enterprise in
which they are engaged. It is not argued here that a scholarly review produces a
neat definition with a sharply-designated set of individually necessary and jointly
sufficient conditions. Instead, the investigation points in the direction of a number
of features which may be variously combined or weighted, but are positively rele-
vant to considering something an example of entrepreneurship. The result is a
somewhat flexible, but still enlarged and more useful view of the entrepreneurial
Researchers point to the derivation of the word “entrepreneur” from the
French entreprendre and the German unternehmen, both of which mean literally
“to undertake,” as in accepting a challenging task. They refer to the groundbreak-
ing development of the concept by Cantillon (1680-1734) and Say (1767-1832),
and to the vital contribution of Schumpeter in the 20th Century (see, e.g., Dees,
1998: 2f). What emerges from examining the writings of these scholars is the pic-
ture of entrepreneur as risk-taker and innovator who, when successful, contributes
fundamentally to creating economic value. Tan et. al. (2003) arrive at a similar
understanding of the concept by considering “intuitively plausible examples” of
entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs, and consulting the Oxford English Diction-
ary. “Entrepreneurship,” they conclude, “is the process of attempting…to make
business profits by innovation in the face of risk” (2003: 10).
Dees, in pursuing his conviction that social entrepreneurs are one kind of
entrepreneur (1998: 3), draws on historical and current scholarship concerning
entrepreneurship. From Say he adopts the element of value creation; from
Schumpeter he takes up the notion of innovation and change. He supplements
these on the basis of proposals made by current-day scholars Drucker (e.g.
Drucker, 1985) and Stevenson (e.g. Stevenson, Roberts and Grousbeck, 1989).
Dees credits Drucker with amplifying Say’s concept to stress the entrepreneurial
activity of recognizing and exploiting opportunities. He applauds Stevenson for
adding the notion of resourcefulness; the refusal to be constrained by prevailing
resource limitations. On this basis, Dees defines the entrepreneurial aspect of so-
cial entrepreneurship as including (1) the recognition and “relentless” pursuit of
new opportunities to further the mission of creating social value, (2) continuous
engagement in innovation and modification, and (3) bold action undertaken with-
out acceptance of existing resource limitations. The suggestion that emerges is
that the above three elements of recognizing opportunities, innovating in some
way, and displaying resourcefulness should be considered prime candidates for
inclusion in the amplified notion of entrepreneurship. In addition, the capacity to
endure risk, which Tan et. al. (2003) represent many others in including, should
be added to the list.
Entrepreneurs as commendable
Perhaps the most elaborate model of social entrepreneurship is that devel-
oped by Mort et. al. (2003). They argue that social entrepreneurship is a “multi-
dimensional” construct formed by the intersection of a number of defining charac-
teristics. Referring to a variety of scholarly work on entrepreneurship (e.g. Gart-
ner, 1988; Mintzberg, 1991; Singh, 2001; Stevenson and Jarillo, 1990; Stevenson
et. al., 1989), they state that social entrepreneurs first of all “exhibit a balanced
judgment, a coherent unity of purpose and action in the face of complexity” (Mort
et. al., 2003: 82). This propensity, they argue, allows the social entrepreneur to
balance the interests of multiple stakeholders and to maintain his/her sense of
mission in the face of moral intricacy. Second, social entrepreneurs excel at rec-
ognizing and taking advantage of opportunities to deliver in a superior way the
social value they aim to provide. Finally, social entrepreneurs exhibit in the social
arena the risk-tolerance, innovativeness and “proactiveness” displayed by com-
mercial entrepreneurs in their setting.
At least one characteristic in this list goes beyond what is suggested above
in other applications of the concept of entrepreneurship to social enterprise. The
notion of balanced judgment and steadiness of purpose is an addition to the ideas
of opportunity-recognition, risk-tolerance, innovativeness and resourcefulness al-
ready encountered. This proposal raises a general issue in explicating the concept
of entrepreneurship, perhaps especially when it is placed in the context of a social
mission. It is arguable that with this suggestion, Mort et. al. move from describ-
ing a social entrepreneur to describing a commendable or successful social entre-
preneur. (In describing the “social” element of social entrepreneurship, they de-
scribe the social entrepreneur as “entrepreneurially virtuous” (Mort et. al., 2003:
82), and expand on that notion using concepts from virtue theory in ethics.) There
appear to be echoes of this inclination even in the more restrained list given by
Dees (1998). For instance, he describes the social entrepreneur as one who “re-
lentlessly” pursues new opportunities to pursue the social mission and engages in
“continuous” innovation (4).
Suggestions of this kind are common in the literature aimed at elucidating
the idea of social entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs, especially social entrepreneurs,
are described in terms that emphasize the value of their contributions. The aim of
the description is often to celebrate their accomplishments and encourage others
to emulate and/or support them. It is natural enough in these circumstances that
commentators extend their “definitions” of the phenomenon to include normative
characteristics, but there are good reasons to resist the temptation.
In offering their own account of social entrepreneurship, Tan et. al. (2003)
argue persuasively that any plausible definition of “entrepreneur” must allow for
unsuccessful entrepreneurs, given that we would all agree there are many cases
deserving that description. Similarly, it is maintained here, any explication of the
idea of social entrepreneur must allow that some will have selfish motives behind
their social mission, or be less than relentless, or be uneven in their performance,
or be otherwise less than exemplary. Once again, it seems obvious that there are
many examples of such things in the real world. Dees labels his own definition as
“idealized” (1998: 4), explicitly suggesting that actual cases will exemplify his list
of characteristics unevenly and partially. A plausible conclusion is that a satisfac-
tory definition of the entrepreneurship component of social entrepreneurship
should avoid building in the notions of success or estimability and allow for social
entrepreneurs who may be unsuccessful, inconsistent, and otherwise less than ex-
What makes social entrepreneurship social?
There is broad agreement that social entrepreneurs and their undertakings
are driven by social goals; that is, the desire to benefit society in some way or
ways. This is another way of saying that the social entrepreneur aims in some way
to increase “social value,” i.e. to contribute to the welfare or well-being in a given
human community. Disagreement takes place over the location social goals must
have in the purposes of the entrepreneur or his/her undertaking.
Exclusively social goals and not-for-profit status
At one extreme are those who hold that some social goal(s) must be the
exclusive aim of the social entrepreneur. As social entrepreneurship scholar Dees
puts it, “For social entrepreneurs, the social mission is explicit and central….
Mission-related impact becomes the central criterion, not wealth creation. Wealth
is just a means to an end for social entrepreneurs [emphasis added]” (1998: 3).
The claim that any wealth generated is just a means to the social end suggests that
financial benefit to the entrepreneur has no place among the goals of the undertak-
ing. Accordingly, a large body of literature (e.g. Dees, Emerson and Economy,
2002) locates the concept of social entrepreneurship in the world of non-for-profit
(NFP) organizations. This idea may even be taken to include associations aimed
at delivering some social good or service without engaging in any form of ex-
change, i.e. with no “earned income” activities. Anderson and Dees (2002), for
instance, ask the question whether earned income generation, resulting from some
form of exchange of a product or service, is essential to social entrepreneurship.
Their answer is emphatic: “No! It is not. Social entrepreneurship is about finding
new and better ways to create and sustain social value” (192). On this understand-
ing, a scheme to distribute grocery-store leftovers to the needy might then—at
least as far as its goals and structure go—qualify as social entrepreneurship. You
could find social entrepreneurs inventing ways to deliver shelter or health or edu-
cation, without necessarily charging fees or looking for any return from their
beneficiaries or supporting their endeavors with earned income.
Other commentators are less permissive. The Northland Institute, for in-
stance—a body founded in 1996 “to improve the effectiveness of community de-
velopment organizations” (The Northland Institute, 2001)— represents a constitu-
ency which links social entrepreneurship with “social enterprise,” a term it defines
as “the use of earned income strategies by nonprofit organizations.” The Institute
is one of many participants in the field who cite the “double bottom line…the art
of simultaneously pursuing financial and social returns on investment.” On this
view, social entrepreneurship necessarily involves “enterprise,” in the sense of
some form of income-generating venture, bent, however, not on profit but on so-
cial benefits. NFPs taking this route are often described as “hybrids” (e. g. Davis,
1997) in recognition of the way that they combine nonprofit with for-profit orga-
nizational features. A notable example of this form of enterprise would be the
Grameen Bank in Bangladesh (see Grameen Communications, 1998) and other
microcredit lending agencies who extend small loans to the poor who would not
qualify for credit with standard lenders. Their aim is to improve the condition of
their clientele, and profits are turned back into increased lending capacity. To take
another example, the Big Issue is a quality, general-interest magazine sold on the
streets of Scotland and now in other parts of the world. What led some scholars of
social entrepreneurship to call it “the most prominent example of social entrepre-
neurship in the U.K.” (Hibbert, Hogg and Quinn, 2002: 288) is its vendors; home-
less people who have undertaken a rehabilitation program under the auspices of a
foundation supported by magazine sales. The vendors become independent busi-
ness people, supported by profits they make on each magazine (The Big Issue
Foundation, 2004). More familiar examples of this kind of activity are the not-for-
profit craft centers that carry on their business in order to provide a market for
craftspeople in poor countries without markets.
These examples illustrate what Fowler has usefully labeled “integrated so-
cial entrepreneurship” (Fowler, 2000: 645). In this form of income-generating ac-
tivity, the undertaking is itself aimed at producing beneficial social outcomes. So
a lending institution may be set up in order to bring a benefit to creditors and not
just to create income to be used in support of some other helpful undertaking.
Selling The Big Issue is, by itself, meant to help those who sell it, and not just
provide revenue for some other worthwhile undertaking.
The contrast is with “complementary social entrepreneurship,” where an
enterprise, which does not in itself produce social benefits, supports some other
activity meant to generate the desired outcomes (Fowler, 2000). For example, the
Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) not only supports the foun-
dation of agricultural and credit ventures to empower poor people to support
themselves, it has set up revenue-generating enterprises— the BRAC Printing
Press, BRAC Cold Storage and the BRAC Garments Factories—to generate prof-
its that will support its core operations.
It is a small step from here to allow that the idea of trading in order to pur-
sue social goals may be extended to include such things as licensing use of an in-
stitutional name, and NFPs may be permitted to operate in partnerships with for-
profit companies. So Pomerantz writes,
Social entrepreneurship can be defined as the development of in-
novative, mission-supporting, earned income, job creating or li-
censing, ventures undertaken by individual social entrepreneurs,
nonprofit organizations, or nonprofits in association with for prof-
its (2003: 25).
Some form of exchange venture in the service of a social goal is still in play, and
NFPs are still the players, but their activities may now be undertaken in partner-
ship with a profit-seeking partner who is willing to devote at least some of his/her
profits to what is considered a good cause.
So far in this review, there is a shared assumption that social entrepreneur-
ship is a NFP concept, and a range of opinion as to whether or to what extent they
might or must be involved in some form of revenue-generating exchange. Indeed
a survey of the appearance of the term “social entrepreneurship” in scholarly and
non-scholarly publications over a 15-year period suggested that fully 83% of
press references to “social entrepreneurship” referred to examples from the NFP
sector. This appears to have been decisive in encouraging the authors of the sur-
vey to infer that “the social entrepreneur is overwhelmingly a nonprofit sector
phenomenon” (Taylor, Hobbs, Nilsson, O'Halloran and Preisser, 2000: 6), even
though they noted that publications aimed at a business audience generally used
the term to refer to “social mission,” for-profit businesses.
Beyond the not-for-profit status: adding profit
There are good reasons not to confine the notion to NFP enterprises. For
one thing, the boundary between not-for-profit and for-profit organizations is far
from air tight. An Australian review panel provides one useful attempt to deline-
ate the NFP sector: “A not-for-profit organisation…is an organisation that is pro-
hibited under its governing rules or documents from distributing profits to its
members, owners or manager” (Review Panel on the Law of Negligence, 2002:
59). Even this sensible prescription leaves what appear to be borderline cases.
One hundred percent of after-tax profits and royalties from the “Newman’s Own”
line of products are, according to company statements, devoted to “educational
and charitable purposes” (Newman's Own, 2005). Even if it is assumed that the
company’s governing rules forbid anything else it may still seem somewhat
strained to call the operation a NFP organization. On the other hand, even if the
philanthropic distribution is entirely a matter of Paul Newman’s continuing good
will and not company legislation, it nevertheless seems odd to lump Newman’s
Own in with other for-profit enterprises. There would be wide agreement, how-
ever, that as long as Newman’s Own qualifies as an example of entrepreneurship,
it should be considered social entrepreneurship. So there are borderline cases on
this matter of profit/not-for-profit classification. And that may suggest that the
border should not be regarded as fundamentally important.
This suggestion is underlined by the fact that the border proves to be not
only vague but porous. There are examples, which move from one side to the
other without appearing to disqualify themselves as instances of social entrepre-
neurship. Margaret Cossette used a grant of $4,000 to turn a small public-sector
program into a successful NFP enterprise for providing home care for rural sen-
iors in a small U.S. county as an alternative to relocation to nursing-care homes
(Boschee, 1995). When Medicaid money came available, which would fund still
more clients, Cossette lacked the capital needed to support the greatly increased
service, and a NFP didn’t qualify for bank credit. Cossette took her venture, Mis-
souri Home Care, into the for-profit arena, secured her loan and expanded her
service many times over. It has become a profitable company with several million
dollars in revenue, serving several thousand clients and providing employment for
a large number of home-care aides. Jerr Boschee, President and CEO of the Alpha
Centre for Social Entrepreneurs, has no hesitation in citing Cossette as an exem-
plary social entrepreneur (Boschee, 1995: 21).
There are many more cases that clearly lie on the for-profit side of the di-
vide but are readily labeled “social entrepreneurship” by reputable commentators.
The Schwab Foundation points to Albina Ruiz’s innovative approach to waste
collection in the slums of Lima, Perú as an outstanding example of social entre-
preneurship (The Schwab Foundation, 2002). Ruiz founded and financed a net-
work of local micro-enterprises that visit each household weekly, collecting and
recycling solid waste. The goals of Ruiz’s Ciudad Salud (“Healthy City”) extend
beyond improving health conditions to providing employment and enhanced liv-
ing conditions in the area, and Ciudad Salud has apparently proven very success-
ful in accomplishing these ends. As well, it has turned out to be a profitable un-
dertaking. Accounts of ventures like Ciudad Salud make it clear that the social
goals drive the enterprise, but profits that may be distributed to owners and opera-
tors are also a part of the picture.
What about other goals? If so, how prominent?
The cases just cited suggest that profitability is consistent with social en-
trepreneurship, but social ends still dominate the goal structure of these ventures.
What about the case where social purposes are mingled with a strong commitment
to making money? The well-known ice cream franchise “Ben and Jerry’s” has
had, from its founding in 1978, a strong record of environmental and social re-
sponsibility. One of its most remarkable projects is its “PartnerShop” program
(still in existence after the purchase of Ben and Jerry’s by Unilever in 2000),
which allows select NFP organizations to open a franchise without paying the
usual franchise fees. Ben and Jerry’s is a highly profitable corporation, with net
revenue of $13.5m in 1999 (Students for Informed Career Decisions, 2000). As
the New Statesman asked in reporting the opening of a new venture in Cheshire,
England, linking Ben and Jerry’s with an organization tackling inner-city poverty
through a number of business ventures (Stephens, 2003), “Is this just ice cream
with a fashionable dollop of corporate social responsibility or, as its progenitors
claim, a market solution to social problems?” And is it social entrepreneurship? It
seems difficult to deny it that standing. The mission statement displayed on the
company’s web site blends a firm commitment to profitability with an equally
strong social and environmental sense (Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings Inc.,
2005). And these commitments appear to be borne out in company performance .
For some, the emphasis on profitability appears to disqualify enterprises
like these as the outcome of social entrepreneurship. One influential British writer
for instance, defines “social entrepreneur” partly in terms of the organizations
they bring into being, which, he contends, must be “social in the sense that they
are not owned by shareholders and do not pursue profit as their main objective”
(Leadbetter, 1997: 11). Not everyone agrees. Indeed the case for including cases
like Ben and Jerry’s is strengthened by taking into account instances of what other
authoritative analysts confidently label “social entrepreneurship.” The Columbia
Business School Social Enterprise Program highlighted the activities of American
businessman Gary Hirshberg, whom it considered an outstanding social entrepre-
neur (The Social Enterprise Program News, 2003). Hirshberg founded a yoghurt
company committed to organic, environmentally sensitive production, and is
proud of the fact that it is highly profitable. Its profitability he attributes in large
part to the committed following his company’s mission attracts. There is no sug-
gestion that the mission is merely opportunistic or that the enterprise’s environ-
mental and social commitments are mere marketing tools. But the goal of profit-
ability appears to rank closely if not equal to the objectives of environmental and
What about cases where the social goals appear further down the list of
company objectives? Business writers (e. g. Cone, Feldman and DaSilva, 2003b)
have noted that U. S. companies pay relatively little attention to the potential of
their charitable activities to enhance their fiscal bottom line, and recommend that
they begin doing exactly that. Paying attention in this way has been called “cause
branding;” a strategy attracting increasing interest in the competitive world of
business. Avon Cosmetics allies itself with the cause of raising breast cancer
awareness. ConAgra Foods, one of the U.S.’s largest distributor of processed and
packaged foods, joins the fight against child hunger by sponsoring after-school
cafés. Cause-branding is recommended on the grounds that while it provides
needed support for worthwhile social projects, it also benefits the profitability of
the business, partly by encouraging loyalty among customers and employees.
Companies which “demonstrate a sense of social responsibility,” it is said, “stand
out in a world of increasingly undifferentiated services” (Cone et. al., 2003b: 95).
Without being entirely cynical, one may get the impression that in at least some
cases the social objectives are pursued as much for their marketing value as for
their intrinsic merit. It must be admitted that in many such cases the social pay-
offs are considerable, whatever the mixture of motives in the company executives
electing to align their brand with a social cause. Is this social entrepreneurship?
At least some respected observers are inclined to say that it is. The Har-
vard Business School included in its online newsletter under the section devoted
to “social enterprise” an excerpt from an article describing and recommending
“cause branding” (Cone, Feldman and DaSilva, 2003a). Being engaged in a social
enterprise is not necessarily the same as being a social entrepreneur; one must sat-
isfy the conditions of entrepreneurship to qualify for the latter category. But at
least the social part of the label seems granted in this case. On this reading, social
entrepreneurship should be taken to include undertakings where social goals are
added to the firm’s objectives, even where they may not rank first in the firm’s
priorities and may be taken on at least partly for instrumental reasons.
It is tempting to argue that the extension of “social entrepreneurship” to
include cases of this kind over-extends the concept. Surely a critical distinction is
reached in the placement of social goals in the aims of a venture when the social
goals are subordinate to profit-seeking in the following sense. Assume that a ven-
ture is fiscally sustainable when its operating costs are met, and profit is whatever
is realized over and above that amount. A deciding question appears to be whether
a given undertaking pursues any social goals it has only insofar as they are ex-
pected to increase, or at least not diminish, its profits. It is tempting to say that
only ventures willing to accept a significant reduction in their profits as a conse-
quence of their pursuit of social goals should be considered examples of social
entrepreneurship. By implication, firms would be disqualified which would aban-
don their social aims if they believed they did not create added profit.
While it is tempting to trim common usage in this way, there are good rea-
sons not to. First of all, there is an unavoidably subjunctive mood to this criterion.
The question is, what will a corporation do if faced with a choice, and it may be
that many corporations do not find themselves brought to the test. In these cases
one can only guess what these corporations would do if faced with a choice,
which clearly invites ill-founded judgments. The company itself may not really
know. Second, the criterion is an attempt to draw a line in an area where any
sharp boundary is arbitrary. What are we to say if a venture decides to de-
emphasize, to some degree, but by no means abandon its social objectives in light
of perceived penalties in profitability? The degree of reduction in priority of so-
cial goals and the magnitude of the perceived penalty are both subject to indefi-
nitely large ranges on a continuum. At what point should it be concluded that an
enterprise has shown itself unwilling to accept a reduction in its profits as the
price of social aims?
Third, and most significantly, even if the above objections could be met,
does this criterion really establish a difference worth marking? Suppose that a
company goes into the business of providing a novel form of training and job
placement for the chronically unemployed because it sees in this an opportunity to
make a good profit. Should this disqualified as an example of social entrepreneur-
ship on the grounds that they would not provide this service if they did believe it
to be profitable? Or imagine that a large bank takes the initiative in mounting a
sponsored walk to provide a shelter for homeless people, and there is good reason
to believe they would not do this if they estimated their staff time devoted to the
effort added significantly to overall operating costs. It seems pointless to disqual-
ify this undertaking as social entrepreneurship. The underlying point is surely that
the pursuit of socially-valuable outcomes is something worth identifying and fos-
tering, whereas probing the mysteries of motivation is not only difficult but of lit-
tle practical consequence for present purposes. It has been argued that what makes
an undertaking an example of social entrepreneurship is the presence of social
goals in the purposes of that undertaking.
Points along the continuum of social goals
A range of ways have been outlined above in which the objective of pro-
ducing social benefits may figure in the goal-structure of an organization. In gen-
eral, there appears to be a continuum of possibilities, ranging from the require-
ment that social benefits be the only goal of the entrepreneurial undertaking to the
stipulation merely that social goals are somewhere among its aims. It is worth
highlighting some points along the continuum, partly because they are the basis
for some differences in understanding as to what may be considered social entre-
preneurship. The following figure recognizes those points.
FIGURE 1. THE RANGE OF SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP
(Relative boldness of type indicates the relative prominence of social goals and commercial ex-
Place of Social Goals
Role of Commercial Ex-
Enterprise goals are ex-
No commercial exchange
Enterprise goals are ex-
Some commercial exchange,
any profits directly to social
benefit (‘integrated’) or in
support of enterprise (‘com-
Grameen Bank (‘inte-
grated’); Bangladesh Rural
printing press, cold storage,
garment factory (‘comple-
mentary’), Newman’s Own
Enterprise goals are
chiefly social, but not ex-
Commercial exchange; prof-
its in part to benefit entrepre-
neur and/or supporters
Missouri Home Care, Ci-
Social goals are prominent
among other goals of the
profit-making to entrepreneur
& others is strong objective
Ben & Jerry’s
Social goals are among the
goals of the enterprise, but
subordinate to others
profit-making to entrepre-
neur & others is prominent
or prime objective
objectivities undertaken by
corporations such as banks
At one extreme are the entrepreneurs who are driven entirely and exclu-
sively by the aim of producing some form of societal benefit. Some of these will
engage in no commercial activity at all. Others will engage in some form of ex-
change but only on the understanding that any profits are directed back to the ven-
ture. Still others in this group will allow profits to be generated and distributed but
only as an instrumental necessity in supporting their social venture. Most, though
not all, of those who use the term “social entrepreneur” will extend the range of
its use to include individuals or groups who are chiefly motivated by the wish to
produce social benefits, but who aim to produce monetary and other benefits for
themselves, and perhaps others, as well. Entrepreneurs in this grouping are likely
also to allow for, even aim at, profits for themselves and/or others. In this case,
however, they are likely to accept profit-making as more than a utilitarian neces-
sity. These people may well wish to do good and do well for themselves and any
backers. Still others will allow that social goals need only be among the objectives
of the social entrepreneur, and may even be subordinate to the aim of personal
gain. In these cases, profit-making may not only be accepted as a good in itself, it
may even be the prime purpose, with social benefits welcomed as an additional
and happy outcome. In the extreme case, the social benefits may even be the
means by which profitability is achieved.
It was suggested above that the line between for-profit and not-for-profit
enterprises is hard to sustain as a significant boundary on social entrepreneurship.
Indeed one thing that emerges from a look at the range of uses given to “social
entrepreneurship” is the clear suggestion that the distinctions among public, pri-
vate and NFP sectors become attenuated. As one reviewer of the literature puts it,
“socially entrepreneurial activities blur the traditional boundaries between the
public, private and non-profit sector, and emphasize hybrid models of for-profit
and non-profit activities” (Johnson, 2000: 1).
Conclusion: Toward a Precising Understanding of Social
The proposal of this paper—meant to be understood with appropriate
flexibility—is that social entrepreneurship is exercised where some person or
group: (1) aim(s) at creating social value, either exclusively or at least in some
prominent way; (2) show(s) a capacity to recognize and take advantage of oppor-
tunities to create that value (“envision”); (3) employ(s) innovation, ranging from
outright invention to adapting someone else’s novelty, in creating and/or distribut-
ing social value; (4) is/are willing to accept an above-average degree of risk in
creating and disseminating social value; and (5) is/are unusually resourceful in
being relatively undaunted by scarce assets in pursuing their social venture.
The single most important of these criteria is the first in that it serves, con-
ceptually, to distinguish social entrepreneurship from other forms. There is no
exact way of fixing the border below which the importance of social goals fails to
qualify something as social entrepreneurship. But it is this commitment to provid-
ing social value that marks the divide between social and other forms of entrepre-
neur. All of the characteristics mentioned above are characteristics that may be
had to a greater or lesser degree. Some are specified to be “greater than average”
in amount, but there is no way of indicating exactly the point at which this quali-
fying standard is reached or exceeded. As in the case of the social aspect of the
target concept, this list represents a catalogue from which particular users of the
notion will choose somewhat selectively both as to what they include and how
they weight the factors. Arguably, this variability simply reflects the absence of
sharp boundaries in the phenomena, even given the “precising” approach adopted
in this paper to definition. One obvious piece of advice follows from this observa-
tion. It behooves anyone using the concept of social entrepreneurship to make it
clear the sense he/she attaches to it.
The above summary includes an important departure from what is some-
times taken for granted in discussions of social and other forms of entrepreneur-
ship. It is easy to assume, and the literature often seems to reflect this assumption,
that social entrepreneurship is exercised by individuals. As Thompson (2002) has
reminded us, it would be a mistake to accept this generalization. Entrepreneurship
is best thought of as an extended activity which may well be carried out by a team
or a group of people (Stewart, 1989). The characteristics listed above could be
thought of as roles in a performance; roles which may be split and/or shared. Oth-
ers have pointed out that entrepreneurship may find a place in cultural settings
where collective, rather than individualistic, thinking prevails (Peterson, 1988).
Peredo (2003; Peredo and Chrisman, 2005) actually describes a situation in which
is plausible to speak of a community, acting collectively to exercise an entrepre-
neurship which is plainly social in many of its aspects. To be an entrepreneur may
therefore mean being an individual, a member of a group, or an organization
who/which carries out the work of identifying and creatively pursuing a social
Social entrepreneurship, as described here, is not a tidy concept. Its untidi-
ness has been argued here to be a reflection of the way that the world is. There
are, however, significant landmarks in the complex geography of the concept, and
the purpose of this paper has been to advance an understanding of those marks
and their importance. The authors submit that the notion as outlined above makes
a significant contribution to understanding the complex phenomenon of directing
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