Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Do Social Entrepreneurs Exist?

I'm responding to Paul Light's first post on Social Edge:
Let There Be Light: 1. Do social entrepreneurs exist?

The question of "social entrepreneur" being too exclusively applied is somewhat amusing to me. For me, the two main reasons to identify as a social entrepreneur are:
1. You get to meet people who are much more like you than typical nonprofit or for-profit leaders, and
2. It's a fund raising hook.

Like a lot of long term social entrepreneurs, I was one for a decade before I heard the term. But, I have to admit I have gotten a ton of value from being labeled as one, both in terms of great peer interaction and funding.

On to the amusing part! One of the enduring facts about humanity is its response to incentives. Because of number 2 above, there is a strong incentive to self-identify as a social entrepreneur. Carl Schramm of Kauffman Foundation has joked to me that many traditional nonprofit organizations have rebranded as social entrepreneurs in their grant applications.

So, given the strong incentives to broaden the social entrepreneur tent to every social endeavor, how do we deal with this? Well, it depends on your objectives. For me, telling someone they are not a social entrepreneur has almost no reward and a fair amount of negatives. For a foundation like Skoll, which has to narrow their lists down to a tiny fraction of applications, they also don't have to tell people no about their status as an SE: they have plenty of great bona fide SEs to choose among.

If you really care in a particular case, I use the same filter when someone self-identifies as an entrepreneur. Did that person really create something new, either as a startup or a novel approach in an existing organization? In the final analysis, most people are going to use the "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" test.

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