Social entrepreneurship – looking behind the hype

Luc Tayart de Borms

In every sector of society, including our own, there are passing fashions. This certainly applies to the concepts of social entrepreneurship and social investing, which are arguably hyped up ‘trends’. Every new fashion clearly brings with it positive elements. The big plus in the case of social entrepreneurship is the large number of new donors it has brought to the field, particularly those who profited from the new economy.

Bringing this entrepreneurial spirit – the drive, the risk-taking, the innovation and the strong leadership – into the world of ‘old philanthropy’ has been positive, as it is for the most part sorely lacking in the traditional philanthropic approach. It has given our somewhat sleepy sector a wake-up call to become more aware of the need for accountability. This brings with it the demand for stricter evaluation and the need to pay more attention to the impact of our actions and initiatives.

But sexy concepts also have their downsides and often bring their own question marks.

First, there is an issue of definition. Amid today’s hype, what is really being promoted? Is it a new approach to social problems using market-based approaches – something that we in Europe call the social economy – or is it the importance of individual leadership and entrepreneurship? It is certainly true that the role of the leader has been neglected as a success factor.

But for me the main issue is the impression that this is the new and promising road to the future. The concept of social entrepreneurship surely embodies some valuable approaches, but the missionary zeal with which it is promoted can appear somewhat naive.

If one works on overwhelming societal problems such as poverty reduction, health issues or human trafficking, it is wise not to forget the broader picture. And this broader picture shows that our work is only a small part of the solution and that others, such as governments and multilateral actors, are just as important.

In fact, it could be argued that promoting social entrepreneurship as the way to the future actually restricts the various roles that philanthropy plays within society and relegates our work to that of service delivery and substitution. Those investing in social entrepreneurs think more in terms of outcomes and deliverables than of wider societal impact, which implies that they define performance in terms of a project or NGO they invest in, rather than a complex societal problem to be addressed. When working on the root causes of society’s ills, results are very difficult, sometimes impossible, to measure.

There is a certain arrogance here. Strong leadership and entrepreneurial spirit, which is what makes social entrepreneurship successful in the first place, is often coloured by a lack of modesty when it comes to ‘saving the planet’. It can be a rude awakening to discover that if one wants to achieve meaningful social and political change, other actors control the levers.

A more productive way forward in the pluralistic world of philanthropy may be to encourage social entrepreneurs to work with other sectors to scale up their successful micro-solutions to address larger social problems and effect structural change. Doing this is likely to involve advocacy and policy initiatives.

Luc Tayart de Borms
Managing Director, King Baudouin Foundation

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