At the 2010 Skoll World Forum, one message rang out loud and clear: social entrepreneurship is officially sexy. Due in no small part to Jeff Skoll’s efforts over the past decade, the term “social entrepreneur” has torn its way into the mainstream lexicon and is currently redefining the way that we think about theories of change and the agents who promote them. The potential impact of such a mindshift is tremendous, and will have reverberations on the way that world-changers go about their work for decades to come.
And yet – as any political scientist will tell you – the larger a movement gets, the more inclusive and less definitive it tends to become. As more people adopt and adapt the language of social entrepreneurship, the less precise and meaningful that language becomes. What starts out as a relatively defined niche finds itself pulled into the broader, more mainstream consciousness. And in the process, it loses much of its meaning and unique perspective.
That’s exactly what I see happening to the ‘social entrepreneurship’ movement. As evidenced by the 2010 Skoll World Forum, someone new to the space may be hard-pressed to delineate the differences between social entrepreneurship and general do-goodery. Sure, we all know that the ‘entrepreneurship’ aspect is supposed to refer to some combination of innovative solutions, market-based approaches, the application of time-tested business principles, and the discipline of private sector…but just how far can and should that be stretched? On the stage at this year’s Skoll Forum, invited speakers promoted such a broad range of interventions – many of which looked very much like traditional charity – that one has to wonder where the line between social entrepreneurship and traditional aid is drawn. In the noble quest for broad adaptation and mainstream acceptance, what is lost and what is gained?
Any successful movement, when shifting from the few to the many, must necessarily become more inclusive and less dogmatic…on the less important stuff. But a movement can achieve nothing if it doesn’t fervently embrace a defined set of principles that it will defend come hell or highwater. It’s not clear that social entrepreneurship has any shared understanding of what its own Holy Principles are, nor how to defend them when under siege.
I believe that that siege is officially upon us. It hasn’t come in the form of antagonistic provokers in opposition to the tenants themselves, but rather from well-intended actors who cloak themselves in the language and co-opt it for just the kind of interventions the movement arose to counteract.
In the end, social entrepreneurship will maintain its meaning only if it understands its principles. If it doesn’t, it will just become a great new way to package and brand the same old do-goodery it was trying to move us beyond.