Are there different “forms” of social entrepreneurship in different countries?

Room for Thought is a casual space for Empower Fellows and interested commenters to opine on issues within the field of social entrepreneurship, and to further debate towards a better understanding of the role of the social entrepreneur in society.

Round II: Are there different “definitions” or forms of social entrepreneurship in different countries?

Patric Gibbons

Ok, so while I believe the definition of social entrepreneurship stays the same no matter where you go I really think the form can change from country to country. This is essentially because to me, every country has different needs. For example, in countries like Guatemala, where I have worked, there is a huge need for clean water. In other countries, malnourishment is a big problem, and in other countries maybe both malnourishment and lack of access to water is a problem. Some countries may have warfare and conflict further exacerbating their problems or may be far behind in recognizing women’s rights, which poses greater challenges for us as social entrepreneurs. Culture can also have a huge influence on our form too. How will the people we work with accept our values? What is their view of us? Do they trust us? Therefore, the form of our SE can vary greatly depending on the needs and cultural differences of the populations that we are trying to help.


Lucia Smith

I think social entrepreneurship can manifest itself differently depending on the circumstances in which it is enacted. Cultural traditions and policies inherently shape the willingness and ability of a venture to successfully take root and propagate. Just as the needs and demands (and the ability to supply those needs and demands) change depending on the environmental context, societal views on how these products and practices should be implemented greatly shape how these ventures come into play. A system that works well in one context may not be appropriate in another; for example, how might Islamic restrictions on money-lending affect finance programs and training? Such factors must be taken into consideration when considering the development of a particular type of social entrepreneurship.


Meagan Maher – Collaborative Transitions Africa, Uganda

This question is difficult since I don’t know very much about definitions of social entrepreneurship in different countries.  The definition varies so much in the United States alone, so it seems reasonable to believe that it varies abroad as well.  It’s also likely that the term “social entrepreneurship” isn’t in popular use in some other countries.  The NGO I worked with in Uganda over the summer didn’t have a definition of social entrepreneurship, even though its activities were, by an average definition, related to social entrepreneurship.  If I asked them what social entrepreneurship was, I’m not even sure they would have an answer (I’m emailing them about it now).  I think that many times individuals or groups will set out on projects to improve a community without taking the time to define what they’re doing or put it into a category.  So people are often social entrepreneurs without being conscious of it.  Perhaps these people could fit into one category of SE, but it makes more sense to me to put different forms of SE into categories by the nature of the activity, not by where the activity takes place.


Chrissy Goldbaum – Foundation for Sustainable Development, Cochambamba, Bolivia

While the nature of a social entrepreneur’s or NGO’s work will vary depending on the country in which they are working, I believe that the tenets of entrepreneurial or development work remain the same. For example, the issue of an outsider gaining locals’ trust and ensuring community financial buy-in and participation in project idea creation and maturation (this could be an entire discussion in itself!) are issues that any entrepreneur will encounter in any given part of the world. However, given the differing social/economic/political needs and individual and institutional assets in different regions, the type of project one develops will change in order to meet the needs of those who they are working with and to utilize the local skills available effectively.


Erica Goldstein – Physicians for Human Rights, Cambridge, MA

Many people do not know what social enterprise means. Therefore, social enterprise is defined across countries by the social entrepreneurs themselves. I think that social enterprise is pretty much defined as the same thing, but the limit and focus of social enterprise in each country is going to vary. For example, looking at the Schwab Fellowships this summer, I found that each country had a certain “niche.” For example, there is a big focus on microfinancing in India.


Cody Valdes – Sisi ni Amani, Nairobi, Kenya

We would like to think that we can adjudicate between what is good for society (which is the centerpiece of social entrepreneurship business models) and what is merely wanted by society (what is generally pursued by regular old businesses). By placing the moral luminance of the first above the second – a judgment that Social Entrepreneurs freely make for themselves – we clearly are not moral utilitarians. In other words, we ascribe higher value to outcomes x, y, z (such as the reduction of poverty, or the creation of jobs for women) above outcomes a, b, and c (such as the enjoyment of an iPad, or a nice cigarette). As Social Entrepreneurs, we take liberty in making these judgments. But should we allow somebody like the billionaire Bill Gates into our club? Did he not single-handedly take the world into the 21st century? What about his competitor, the late Steve Jobs, whose company was a design-based refinement of the basic computer components? Did he do anything except make us happier with our toys? Did he add productively to society on the scale that Gates did, or reduce poverty on the way Gates did? It is difficult to understand where the continuum of business crosses over from social entrepreneurship on the one end to greed-driven profit maximizing on the other – where we might discover the bankers and traders who secured their year-end bonuses by selling stock options of questionable quality.

But American thinkers on business and management during the post-WWII years never drew a bright and sharp line between social enterprises and businesses-as-usual. The men who towered over the field of corporate, management, and business theory in the 20th century, such as the late William Drucker, held the following maxims: 1) That corporations are organs of society, and so are inherently value-producing, or else the body society will eject them. Interestingly, these were not the words of an apologist for cigarette corporations; he was delivering a warning to corporations who thought they might run roughshod over their community or customer in order to maximize their profit; 2) Profit is never the goal of a company; it is merely the means by which a company sustains itself, so that it can produce its benefit for society. Marks & Spencer began in the late 1800s with the mission of reducing the visibility of class divisions in the UK by providing low- and medium-income people with affordable, high-quality clothing and goods. Consequently, the argument goes, they continue to thrive today. Sears began in America in the early 1900s in order to service disconnected rural farmers and provide their clothing, materials, and other needs. They found a number of people who weren’t being adequately serviced in society and set out to fix that; the motive was neither profit nor the creation of jobs at Sears’ headquarters. Profit must be secondary to the mission’s execution.

Is this how it works today? We see in the unabashed proclamations that “greed is good” that America’s corporate culture took a wildly inappropriate swing in the late 20th century. CEOs and middle managers genuinely began to believe that the profit motive ought to be their calling card, that their guiding mantra would indeed be “greed is good.” American companies who once listened to men like Drucker (these consultants and writers were mostly men) incorporated the philosophies of social enterprises; nowadays, many or most do not. One might say that in light of Occupy Wall Street, in a small way, corporate America’s chickens are coming home to roost.


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