Below is a guest post from Mat Despard, a teacher of nonprofit management and leadership at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and coordinator of UNC’s Nonprofit Leadership Certificate program. Matt has a real interest in economic empowerment interventions to improve social, economic, and health outcomes among very poor women with children and writes a blog on nonprofit issues. Mat is a reader of the Social Velocity blog, and after a thought-provoking email exchange about social entrepreneurship, I asked him to put his thoughts into a guest blog post for Social Velocity. Here is his post.
OK, so first of all, let me be clear: the idea of innovation to tackle tough social problems like the lack of clean water in developing countries is a great thing. Yet I have some misgivings about the social entrepreneurial banner, from a nonprofit perspective:
- Elevating the individual. Not all of us can be a Geoffrey Canada or Paul Farmer. And besides, as Dr. Farmer is nice to acknowledge, behind every social entrepreneur is a team doing some serious heavy lifting to implement the entrepreneur’s vision. Mr. Canada talks about the importance of community change in Harlem. Why not focus on entrepreneurial organizations or communities? After all, to solve tough social problems, we need collective action that can be sustained by communities (and supported by governments) over the long haul.
- Poor economies of scale. Too often aspiring (and usually young) social entrepreneurs assume they need to start their own organization vs. partner with an existing one. This results in the need to raise unrestricted revenue to build infrastructure – bookkeeping/accounting, program evaluation, information systems, etc. albeit with poor economies of scale. Energy and resources get diverted from problem solving to organization building.
- Ignoring current efforts. There is no shortage of nonprofits doing very innovative things that nonetheless fail to be recognized, perhaps because they lack a charismatic leader and/or partners who champion and market the innovations. I hear about and interact with organizations in developing countries with very innovative ideas that routinely go unheard.
- Lack of evidence. Many social entrepreneurial ideas are largely untested. It’s great that these ideas represent new approaches to tackling social problems, but promotion of these ideas tends to be far out in advance of sufficient evidence that they merit promotion as “the next big thing”.
- The commercial assumption. A strong bias exists in favor of commercial approaches to addressing social problems. It’s great to exploit market opportunities to make innovations more financially sustainable and/or create new economic opportunities for the poor, but often public or private subsidies are needed to catalyze change.
- Lack of an ethical framework. It’s hard to imagine any social entrepreneur who would say that social and economic justice and human rights are unimportant. However, in addition to elevating the individual, the attention given to social entrepreneurship celebrates the ideas (i.e. the means) and not the commitments (i.e. the ends). As such, the focus is on entrepreneurship as a desired activity or way of being, not as a tool (among other tools such as political advocacy and grassroots organizing) to be used to advance human rights.
I think the enthusiasm around social entrepreneurship is great, especially if it means that more people are engaged in creating new ways of solving social problems. Let’s just be honest and humble about what we’re doing and recognize that social entrepreneurship is nothing more than an expression of the human impulse to seek greater peace and justice in the world.
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