Hunton Law

Legal Counsel for Nonprofit & Tax-Exempt Organizations

Legal Counsel for Nonprofits, Foundations & Social Enterprises

The Past and Future of Social Entrepreneurship

Stanford Social Innovation Review hosted a free webinar on June 11, 2013 on “The Past and Future of Social Entrepreneurship”.  Four panelists provided a global perspective on the successes and challenges of social entrepreneurship.  Eric Nee moderated the panel, which included: Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management; Leticia M. Jáuregui Casanueva, Founder and Executive Director, Crea Comunidades de Emprendedores Sociales; Soraya Salti, President and CEO of Middle East/North Africa for Junior Achievement Worldwide, INJAZ Al-Arab; Johanna Mair, Academic Editor, Stanford Social Innovation Review and Professor of Organization, Management and Leadership, Hertie School of Governance.  I highlight some of the discussion topics in this post.

What impact has social entrepreneurship had on the world over the past 30 years? 

The panelists noted two major areas of impact.  Social entrepreneurship has become (i) a compelling tool for change and (ii) an appealing field of practice.  As a tool for change, it has demonstrated an ability to make progress on some of the most intractable social, environmental, and economic justice problems around the globe.  As a field of practice, social entrepreneurship has a professional identity, formalized programs in educational institutions, and ability to attract talent from a broad cross-section of disciplines and backgrounds.

Do we know or agree on what a social entrepreneur is?

In past years, the term ‘social entrepreneur’ was not widely used or defined.  There is now a greater understanding of what the term means and what its value proposition is.  More professionals today identify as a social entrepreneur.  Having a commonly recognized term to label this work helps the social enterprise movement evolve beyond the traditional categories of “nonprofit” or “for-profit”.

Still, social entrepreneurship can mean different things to different people in different contexts.  The panelists agreed that this is a good thing.  In some situations, however, it is important to define the term explicitly, so that there is shared understanding to achieve a goal.  For example, in advocating for legislation to create new legal forms to support social enterprise, it would be important to distinguish social enterprise from other existing legal forms, such as cooperatives or nonprofit corporations, in order to articular the need for new legislation. 

How is social entrepreneurship different from 'regular' entrepreneurship?   

Both social entrepreneurs and regular entrepreneurs are driven to identify problems and find solutions.  ‘Social’ is an important and useful modifier of entrepreneurship for several reasons.  The addition of the modifier ‘social’ to the term ‘entrepreneur’ conveys a mindset of self-empowerment towards changing systems, building better organizations and communities, and scaling solutions.  There are also differences in business model.  For instance, the beneficiary or customer of a social enterprise is often not able to afford to pay the entire cost of the product or service plus a profit margin.  For most other enterprises, the customer can pay enough to result in a profitable, and even extremely profitable, venture. 

How can we be better at solving social problems? 

All panelists agreed that the movement has made good progress but there is much more to be done.  For example, we need more robust legal and regulatory environments so that social entrepreneurs can be more effective in achieving their missions and scaling solutions. 

In celebrating the successes of social entrepreneurship to date, let’s not assume that we can solve all problems with social entrepreneurship alone.  We need to make sure that we continue to address those issues that social entrepreneurship can tackle, and combine social enterprise tools with all other tools in the available toolkit, such as mobilizing governments and advocacy.