What's a Social Entrepreneur?

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Since reading a 2010 paper by Howard Husock published by the Philanthropy Roundtable, I’ve had this question on my mind. Ruth McCambridge of the Nonprofit Quarterly raised it again not too long ago in a LinkedIn group (Readers of the Nonprofit Quarterly), and I was compelled to peck out a quick reply on my iPhone while waiting for a 6 am flight home from McAllen, TX, where I’d been teaching (yes, there were typos).


I’ve heard several definitions for the term social entrepreneur:

(1)  Someone who starts a for-profit business that makes money while addressing a social challenge (do well by doing good)
(2)  Someone who starts a for-profit business to support a nonprofit organization (social enterprise for nonprofits)
(3)  Someone who brings fresh thinking and approaches to social challenges and produces positive change through innovation
(4)  An idealist who breaks free of the shackles of the nonprofit establishment to produce real change without using government grant money.


These definitions matter. First, because a consistent definition of a term contributes to clear communication–that’s always a good thing. But also, because definition four disparages nonprofits that use federal funding to support social services, I’d like to advocate against it.


I gleaned definition four from Howard Husock’s paper, Government and “Scaling” Nonprofits: The Implications of an Expanded Federal Role. In exploring the function of the White House’s Social Innovation Fund, Husock uses logic and literature to argue that government funding corrupts nonprofits and makes them less effective. Government funding of social services, Husock argues, leads to a “nonprofits for hire” culture and results in dependent (rather than independent) nonprofits, mediocre services, organizations that are more responsive to government demands than to community needs, and staff motivated by career advancement rather than idealism. The paper defines true social entrepreneurs as people who “start new organizations from scratch, not in response to someone else’s request for proposals but on the basis of their own ideas about what might help the disadvantaged.”


Also, underlying definition four is the unspoken assumption that trying to resolve problems together, taking into consideration many different experiences and points of view and competing concerns, is far less effective than what a single individual with a good idea can accomplish. In this definition, the democratic ideal of working collaboratively to figure things out is namby-pamby against the Rambo-like muscle and idealism of the “I’m fed up and I won’t take it any more” rebel.


I worked for many years in a nonprofit that used federal grants to fund social services and I can assure you that none of Husock’s stereotypes applied there. It was one of the most creative and responsive environments I can imagine, consistently brought new and effective approaches to life, and was staffed by people who were not well paid and who were highly idealistic. That organization worked hard to build a consensus of concern about youth and family issues in the state, and even though the ideas and experiences of those involved often differed, that collaborative heavy lifting supported the development of a coordinated, outcome-based service system that’s a model for other states. That nonprofit organization believed in measuring outcomes (not outputs) and definitely held itself accountable.


In the 13 years I’ve been traveling around the country as a trainer for The Grantsmanship Center, I’ve met thousands of staff members from similar nonprofits. Their world is light years away from the mediocre “nonprofit for hire” culture Husock describes. Sure, some organizations are more effective and committed than others, and some nonprofit staff members are more idealistic and creative than others. But having worked intensely with around 3,000 nonprofit leaders to improve the quality and stability of services to their communities, I can say unequivocally that the majority of them were exceptional and inspiring social entrepreneurs.


My fear is that the definition of social entrepreneur might be hijacked, making it disrespectful of the creativity, idealism, and tenaciousness that exist in many of what Husock suggests are “tainted” nonprofits—tainted because they accept government funds to support their work. Let’s not let that happen.


— Barbara Floersch, Executuve Director

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