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Defining Social Entrepreneurship

In the first chapter of the Skoll Foundation, the term “social entrepreneur” hadn’t yet emerged, but the core concept and all of the elements were there. The Foundation’s objective was to find entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, to identify the people bringing discipline, drive, and innovative thinking to bear and seeing problems others would characterize as wicked or hopeless through a lens of opportunity.

As Sally has often remarked, the set of people who have what it takes to create the vehicle, the venture, and the strategy to drive an innovation forward, is not very large. It gets narrower still when you zero in on people who have proven their concepts and demonstrated that their innovation works in enough different circumstances to justify investment in moving to an even larger scale.

John Gardner, an architect of the 1960s economic and racial justice programs that came to be known as the Great Society, was a beloved mentor to Sally and became an early adviser to Jeff. “Bet on good people doing good things,” he told Jeff and Sally in their very first meeting. That simple directive is engraved in the ethos of the Foundation. It’s those good people the Foundation would support to build models that solve big problems. A fundamental part of the Foundation’s mission is to connect them with each other to create a community.

This audio selection features excerpts of Sally’s conversations with Ruth Norris, former Skoll Foundation program officer, and Suzana Grego, Skoll Foundation’s Director of Public Engagement and Communication. 

Ruth Norris: I remember in those first days that there was some back and forth about the definition of what qualifies as a social entrepreneur. There were some people in the field who thought that basically any kind of social change work would qualify as social entrepreneurship. And then there were others, you foremost among them, who said No, we have to have a much tighter definition.

But I remember that the early cohorts, as we selected them, was to be very, very careful about choosing people who would fit that very tight definition. And we saw it as a triangle. We saw it first of all as a kind of leadership. Second of all, as having had proof of concept at a, at a fairly significant scale, and third, of being poised to take that impact at scale.

Sally Osberg: That’s exactly right, and the qualities of social entrepreneur were absolutely key. As a matter of fact, they were the non-negotiables.

By 2006 or so, we had built a portfolio. I’d estimate we had maybe 50, 60 social entrepreneurs in the portfolio by then. And as you know, we have a, very lucky to have a master strategist, Roger Martin, on our board. And Roger felt that we’d hit critical mass and we better be really clear about what we meant by social entrepreneurship. So he and I set out together to write this article that became the book Getting Beyond Better: Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition.

In part, we were challenging the field, because definitions were all over the place. And they seemed to encompass everyone who had some impulse to uh improve something, whether it was at a community level or it was at a much larger level, whether it was at the level of the issue or was something very close to home.

And we knew that we had a differentiated idea about social entrepreneurship. And we knew that our was very much aligned with entrepreneurship. And our first line was to figure out what makes entrepreneurs so distinctive. And that’s where we really came to this idea of equilibrium change: That the entrepreneur sees in an existing condition both the opportunity and the dysfunction, and wants to shift that equilibrium being held in place by actors, by forces so it’s optimal for those who are being disadvantage, inconvenienced by this.

Suzana Grego: To be honest, I was a skeptic about the term equilibrium and how that would catch and take off. I mean you have everybody at the time, not everybody, but people increasingly talking about systems change, and you very specifically said it’s actually about equilibrium change and the status quo.

Sally: You’re right that a lot of people had characterized social entrepreneurship as changing the world or as systems change. But most people don’t even have a very good sense of what a system is. People say all the time, “Oh, this is broken, that is broken.” And I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. It’s actually not broken—it’s functioning as it is designed to function for the actors whom it is benefitting. And that was an intellectual breakthrough for us. These systems aren’t broken. They’re, they’re clipping along and that’s part of the problem.

Our other big ‘ah-ha’ was really to distinguish social entrepreneurs from social advocates or social activists and social service providers. And this again wasn’t to make an invidious comparison, but to align social entrepreneurs with social service providers in that they both take direct action. And align social entrepreneurs with social activists who are striving to drive change largely by influencing others, so not again, directly.

So we really argued that there was something distinctive about social entrepreneurship.  And it had to do with social entrepreneurs working directly rather than indirectly. It had to do with distinguishing their work as driving equilibrium change‚ acknowledging a status quo that was enduring to the disadvantage of some significant segment of society and, and working hard to change that status quo. And that clarified what we were looking for.

And there’s a reason that it took us four years from the early investments in social entrepreneurs to that moment: we had to learn what we were about, learn what we valued, learn what social entrepreneurs could actually do to be credible about it. And so, all of that, all of that learning has had its expression, I think, in our selection processes, in our contributions to the field, and you know, ultimately to the difference these organizations and people are making in the world.

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