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Aspirations for social enterprise set the bar too low

Written by Dan Overall, Executive Director of the Trico Charitable Foundation. NOTE: This article was originally published on the Pioneers Post website and has been cross-posted with permission. Pioneers Post is a fantastic platform for news and key discussions on social enterprise and social impact. Image by Luwadlin Bosman on Unsplash. 

Two common refrains – hoping for the day when every business is a social enterprise, and claiming that social entrepreneurship “is a verb, not a noun” – sound positive. In fact, they’re holding us back from performing among the virtuosos of the world, says the Trico Charitable Foundation E.D. 

There are two well-intended but ultimately wrong-headed aspirations for social entrepreneurship that I am hearing repeated with increasing frequency in social impact circles. It’s time to put a spotlight on them.

Both of these aspirations sound like progress. They may even be progress. But sometimes a little progress actually holds us back from our ultimate goal (one step forward, two steps back).

This is the problem with these two aspirations: I fear they set the bar too low and will not get the social entrepreneurship movement where it needs to go.

1. “Social entrepreneurship is a verb, not a noun”

I get it. Verbs are action-oriented, whereas nouns are static. Of course, it’s better to be action-oriented than passive, especially when you want to make the world a better place. Plus, saying “social entrepreneurship is a verb, not a noun” tries to get us past spinning our wheels in a perpetual definition debate about social entrepreneurship and on to action.

All this is great, but think about the difference between an amateur plucking away at a violin, producing painful screeches, and a violin virtuoso playing Mozart. Both are technically playing the violin, and therefore embody verbs. Yet only one closes in on the full potential of the violin.

It is true we need to start with screechy ‘pluckers’ in order to develop our pipeline of virtuosos, but if we forget the end game, the ultimate aspiration, we run the risk of a pipeline stuck at the screechy stage.

“If we forget the end game, the ultimate aspiration, we run the risk of a pipeline stuck at the screechy stage”

We can serve both with a social entrepreneurship movement that is inclusive and ‘be all that we can be’ aspirational. In other words, we can welcome all who are trying to use business models to make the world a better place, while also pushing the social entrepreneurship envelope by asking: how can we fully harness the potential of businesses models to serve social needs? That’s the question that will push our thinking of what is possible and usher in game-changing conversations about the very nature of capitalism. An example of the latter: accepting less profit to achieve more impact is perfectly consistent with the grand promises of choice and human connection that are at the heart of capitalism.

Keep an eye on your end game and ask yourself if that end game is pushing the full potential of social entrepreneurship. Don’t settle for the verb, think about being a virtuoso. Of course, being a virtuoso is not for everyone and that’s ok, but dare to ask.

2. “I hope for the day when all businesses are social enterprises”

Yes, all businesses being social enterprises would be progress. But, once again, it is crucial to keep in mind the ultimate potential of social entrepreneurship.

Think of the difference between everyone on the planet holding a gym membership and everyone on the planet being of optimal health. For the gym membership scenario, many won’t be able to go to the gym; many won’t want to go; many will go but won’t bother working out when they get there; and many who go and work out will do it wrong, resulting in injuries or no increase in fitness.

“Every business being a social enterprise is like universal gym membership: it’s a ‘tick the box’ thing”

Compare that to the scenario where everyone has optimal health. Think how much happier and more productive people would be in that situation, compared to universal gym membership. Think of the health care savings we could have and how we could redirect those savings to other world challenges.

Every business being a social enterprise is like the universal gym membership: it’s a ‘tick the box’ thing, not an impactful change thing. In the jargon of our field, gym memberships and businesses being members of the ‘social enterprise club’ are outputs, maybe even inputs. Being of optimal health and fully harnessing the power of business models to serve social needs are outcomes – powerful, gloriously shiny, ‘let’s target it and never lose sight of it’ outcomes.

Seeing social entrepreneurship as a verb rather than a noun and hoping for the day when all businesses are social enterprises, while steps forward, will not get us where we need to go. While we must welcome all who want to use business models to make the world a better place, where we need to go is fully harnessing the power of business models to serve social needs. That’s the full potential of social entrepreneurship, and it’s time we zeroed in on it.

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