Countless leaders have had enormous impact on the world. But were they social entrepreneurs? Calling them by this name, as many today have been inclined to do, is based on a desire to validate important work leading to real and significant social benefits.
While this tendency is understandable, it’s equally unhelpful. Because if the term "social entrepreneurship" is used to characterize every act of leadership generating public benefit, it will simultaneously become everything and nothing. Here are some key distinctions.
Social responsibility describes individual or organizational commitment to minimize negative and/or enhance positive social or environmental impact of their actions. Its outcomes can range from incremental to transformational.
Patagonia pioneered the 1% for the Planet movement, which allocates 1% of their profits to organizations and initiatives designed to reduce our environmental footprint. They aim to use the resources they have - including their voice, their business, and their community - to do something about climate crises.
Social servants have a long and honorable history of working to make communities and the world more equal, safe, healthy, and better. These kinds of organizations are vital to the well being of our society. They take direct action, but leave the existing system in place, while seeking to reduce its negative effects.
Food Banks works directly to ameliorate the effects of poverty, by providing food for families in desperate need. This food relieves the family's hunger that day, but it doesn't fundamentally change the dynamic that leaves the family so poor that it needs to use the food bank the next week. It doesn't change the drivers of poverty, so much as seek to mitigate its worst effects.
Social activists work indirectly, advocating for legislative changes that can transform the environment or context in questions.They desire to transform a suboptimal social or environmental status quo, to advance the collective best interest of society.
Martin Luther King Jr. advocated to transform America's treatment of African Americans and other disadvantaged minorities. They fought to end race-based discrimination and implement equal rights legislation in the US. To create sweeping change, however, they needed others to act, in this case federal and state governments to pass new legislation that would enshrine more equal rights, to produce fundamental and permanent beneficial change to take hold.
Social entrepreneurs take direct action intended to transform the existing system. They go beyond 'improvement' to bring about 'change', in order create a stable new system that is fundamentally different from the one that preceded it. They envision a new state of affairs, work directly with the communities they serve, and leverage their own assets to spark a solution.
Muhammad Yunus took direct action by creating micro-finance loans to India's rural poor, which broke them out of the cycle of poverty, prevented further exploitation by predatory lending practices, and provided economic agency that allowed them to drastically and independently improve their quality of life.
The intent in making these distinctions is not to claim that social entrepreneurship is better than the others. Countless organizations and individuals that take direct action, seek to ameliorate social ills, or advocate to legislative decision-makers do incredible and important work. They simply don’t fit under the umbrella of social entrepreneurship.
Social entrepreneurs take direct action to create transformational change.