Friday, June 20, 2008

A New Day?

"Imagine a day when successful social-entrepreneurial initiatives do not have to struggle to be noticed. Instead, they are sought out, rewarded, and scaled with support from offices of social entrepreneurship across the country. This new way of approaching solving social problems by government would unleash the huge potential of social entrepreneurship and create a country and world that we all would like to see.."

Andrew Wolk, Advancing Social Entrepreneurship: Recommendations for Policy Makers and Government Agencies, The Aspen Institute and RootCause, April 2008.

Now, what is social entrepreneurship again? Wolk has a definition: "Social entrepreneurship--the practice of responding to market failures with tarnsformative, financially sustainable innovations."

Hmmm? That doesn't say much that is new. Wolk further defines the key principles of social entrepreneurship--social innovation, accountability, and sustainability. It's the third one that gets at something new: "[I]dentifying reliable financial and types of support by utilizing markets, forming partnerships across sectors, and responding to stakeholder needs to ensure that the solution will endure."

A first question: Is this just a rebranding of the nonprofit sector? In some sense, it's taking the best of the nonprofit sector and getting more explicit about the entrepreneurial role, revenue generation, markets, and partnerships. These elements have always been a part of the nonprofit sector (think of Jane Addams) -- but have frequently become muted under the bureaucracy of program implementation and government funding.

A second question: Is it really useful to suggest that social entrepreneurship can solve poverty, or least make a big dent in it? I guess this is the obligatory scaling mantra. It seems like a set-up to me when we've learned the daunting complexities of poverty in the US -- the role of macro economic and policy forces and the micro dimensions of personal, family, and community repsponsibilities. Social entrepreneurs act in the middle with many other nonprofits. It always worries me when advocates of any kind present their wares as silver bullets.

A third question: No downsides? Anyone close to the world of social entrepreneurs has certainly seen the failures of social enterprise start-ups and replications. In some places, being deemed a social entrepreneur has signalled the death knell for one's organization. It seems to me that the best of social entrepreneurship has shown the important role of risk mitigation and failure reduction as well as scaling. It's the infrastructure! After all, you can't really play at being an entrepreneur in the market place without failing. That's not real. Is the social entrepreneurship movement willing to acknowledge that things don't always work out? That would be a big step towards transparency.

I realize that evangelism is usually about the new day. While there is much I agree with in Wolk's analysis and recommendations, I worry about the hype.

No comments: