defining social entrepreneurshipThere is an ongoing discussion over precisely what is social entrepreneurship and who is a social entrepreneur.

One argument is that only founders of socially beneficial organizations that primarily rely on earned income from paying consumers are social entrepreneurs. Others say that this definition is too narrow – that income should also include contract payments, grants and donations. There are those that restrict the term to founders who start something new, and exclude intrepreneurs who change an organization or company from the inside. But many object, saying that "intrepreneurs" are those who have made the most change.

So just how should social entrepreneurship and social entrepreneur be defined?

The Skoll Foundation defines a social entrepreneur as "society’s change agent: a pioneer of innovation that benefits humanity." Wikipedia reads, "A social entrepreneur is someone who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change" – but does not say the change must be positive.

In his Social Edge blog, NYU Professor Paul Light writes:

The challenge is not to define social entrepreneurship so broadly that it becomes just another word that gets bandied about in funding proposals and niche building. Other terms such as innovation have gone that route, and may never be rescued from over-use. At the same time, social entrepreneurship should not be defined so narrowly that it becomes the province of the special few that crowd out potential support and assistance for individuals and entities that are just as special, but less well known.

In Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition, Sally Osberg and Roger Martin write:

Our view is that a clearer definition of social entrepreneurship will aid the development of the field. The social entrepreneur should be understood as someone who targets an unfortunate but stable equilibrium that causes the neglect, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity; who brings to bear on this situation his or her inspiration, direct action, creativity, courage, and fortitude; and who aims for and ultimately affects the establishment of a new stable equilibrium that secures permanent benefit for the targeted group and society at large.

Definitions given by interviewees in the Social Edge Peace Corps Entrepreneurs on the Edge series range from people who teach others entrepreneurial skills they need to better themselves, to people who start businesses along the lines of a responsible corporation, to those who generate new revenue for a non-profit through profit-making ventures. The only common thread if the socially beneficial nature of the endeavor.

• What is your definition?
• Are social entrepreneurs only found in non-profits?
• Or can start up companies with strong social goals meet the test?
• Should it be broad and include corporations that adopt and practice responsible practices?
• Does “Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream” count, or did it lose the "social" part when it was bought by a multinational food company?
• What about Aveda, Patagonia or for-profit micro-finance banks?

Click here and join Patrick O’Heffernan in the conversation.