Moving Past, and Capturing, the Passion of Social Entrepreneurialism

In the non-profit realm, there have been fewer hotter topics discussed than the “social enterprise”. it is an organization that, if asked to define, would have a spectrum of definitions that were at times vague, romantic, and would leave a lot of questions open about the real difference between an NGO and a social enterprise. Were there really a core difference.

In China, this is no different, and given the fact that the concept and role of NGOs is relatively new, “social enterprise” has in some ways surpassed the global movement in terms of take up, expectations, and “movement”. And even with the same issue of defining social enterprises, everyone from government agencies, to incubators, to social funds, and academics have been developing their “social enterprise” platforms. Something that should be applauded on the one hand as these steps are a trend in a right direction, but on the other hand should be scrutinized carefully to ensure that the right steps are being taken.

The problem is that as the terms social enterprise and social entrepreneur have grown more widely used, and the numbers of followers have grown, it is creating several big problems. One of which being the fact a lot of very talented people into believing that they could participate in this new field, only to walk away after 12-18 months. It is a problem that results from a number of issues, which I will detail below, and needs to be addressed as it is having a number of negative impacts on the efforts on organizations.

1) The vague definition of SE – At the core of nearly everything that is wrong about SE, is the fact that there is no definition of SE. On on pole there are the sustainable profit purists who are issue agnostic, but look for organizations who are profit first/ mission second, with a slant towards groups who have a product/ service that provides the funding… and on the other pole you have a wide acceptance of anyone serving a social good regardless of profitability, and public fundraising is allowed. It is on some levels a good thing, as it allows for flexibility, but it can also be a negative thing as it can lead to overcomplicated structures that lose their focus on solving the social mission they were set up to address.

2) The romantic nature of SE – Over the last few years the number of positive stories, books, blogs, and movies that have come to light highlighting the work being done by social enterprises has created a image of social entrepreneurs that has attracted a lot of attention. And it is all great. Because it has attracted a lot of talented and passionate people into new organization, into supporting existing organizations, into developing funds, and so forth. But it is also bad because, through many of these stories, a lot of the hard work and disappointments are often glossed over. It is hard and tiring work to build an organization, to build partnerships, to train staff, to raise seed funding, and to manage the daily grid… it, unfortunately, isn’t all children’s smiles and happy times. It is tough.

3) Misaligned motivations – Making the jump into SE, particularly from those from a stable, successful, and financially fruitful position, isn’t a decision to be made lightly.. and a lack of clarity about how or why one is leaving that position for the life of a social entrepreneur, like the one they read about, will only have negative consequences later on. There has to be more than a short term fit of passion, and it has to come from something deeper than a single encounter or experience, and it has to be a decision that is made with a clarity of purpose, an understanding of the issue(s) that one wants to work with, a clear idea of how one can help, and a long term commitment.

4) Tool kits – Closely linked to the ability of someone to effectively integrate into the new lifestyle that social entrepreneurialism will bring is the experience and knowledge that they will bring to the organization. It is something that, depending on experience, will be both a blessing and a curse. That, while the professional talents they are bringing to the organization may be in need of, but may lead to a “corporate” label to be placed on them by the more idealistic/ issue passionate members of the organization. Nothing that cannot be overcome through a couple of happy hours, but could open themselves up to another issue. That, while they may be good at being “corporate”, there is a high probability these individuals made the jump so that they could do something else. Get into the field. Do some good.

5) Timing – Timing is like location, it is EVERYTHING, and it has to be juuuust right. 20 years ago when Mohammad Yunnus looked out his classroom window and asked himself the fundamental questions about how to effectively alleviate poverty, he was a pioneer. Building a unique platform, one that was constantly challenged, that would ultimately support millions through the Grameen Foundation. but what if he were to ask the exact same questions today, and try to build the exact organization? Would his ideas garner the same attention in the face of web 2.0 SE startups occurring on a daily basis? Would he have been given the same opportunities to work with (educate) his partners, or would they already think they know everything.

At the end of the day, it is my hope that new entrants to SE stay. that the investments made bring a return, and are not wasted when someone leaves because of one of the issues above. that instead of seeing organizations losing talent, they are capturing, incubating, and engaging their talent base long term for the betterment of society.

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