Sunday, December 12, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship Part I: Using Business Skills to Solve Social Ills

Recently, I joined a group of social entrepreneurs sitting around a crowded table at the Women’s Bean Project headquarters in Denver for a historic moment in the social enterprise movement: the group voted to launch a Colorado chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance. As someone who has championed social entrepreneurship education among our young people for the past five years, this is great news. Together, we can forge the power of a coalition to increase the capacity of social enterprise initiatives around the state and to expand public consciousness, embracing and promoting these cutting edge ideas.
Lisa Nitze, President & CEO of Social Enterprise Alliance charges the group to dream big
as we launch our Colorado chapter.

What is Social Entrepreneurship?

In his documentary series on social entrepreneurs called The New Heroes, Robert Redford described social enterprise as “Applying business skills to resolving social ills…part saint, part politician, part business person.”

While an entrepreneur thinks in terms of results and profits, a social entrepreneur seeks results that will change people’s lives simply, quickly, and profoundly. Social entrepreneurs use innovation and strategic partnerships to address root causes of social problems ranging from poverty to pollution, from mental illness to youth-at-risk. The “social profit” of a social entrepreneur is sustainable human and economic development.

Social entrepreneurs conduct gap analyses in their communities – looking to address needs and build on strengths. They look to seize an idea that fills a unique niche and has potential for scalability. And just like in the business world, social entrepreneurship is linked with risk. Social entrepreneurs are courageous, unconventional and able to see new opportunities when others see nothing but hopelessness.

When contrasted to charity, social enterprises don’t rely entirely on community support for their own sustainability; social enterprises work to generate the earned revenue needed to keep their operation going. Social enterprises also don’t just serve immediate needs, like food and shelter, without addressing the underlying causes perpetuating these needs. Social entrepreneurs view the marginalized as the solution not as a passive beneficiary. The social enterprises they build begin with the assumption of competence and resources in communities they are serving.
In the words of Bill Drayton, CEO, chair and founder of Ashoka, “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”

I got interested in social enterprise while I was getting my Masters in Nonprofit Management a few years ago. My instructor and founder of Triple Bottom Line Partners, Nancy Fell, inspired me to apply these concepts to the work of the Carson J Spencer Foundation (CJSF) and the leadership development courses I was teaching at the time. In 2007, CJSF won a business plan competition for our gift basket enterprise that tied into our work promoting mental health, but we found it was too labor intensive for our human resource capacity. Today, this gift basket concept has evolved to what we call “iCare packages”: books, comforting music, and other resources we attractively package and send to families recently bereaved by suicide. We have solved our human resource problem by forging strategic partnerships to assist with the distribution. From 2006-2009, I taught a sophomore seminar that challenged the students to create social enterprises for suicide prevention, and most rated this activity the most useful learning of the whole course. Today, CJSF works with high school youth through a program we call "Working Minds for Youth" to expand these ideas and support the development of the next generation of socially entrepreneurial suicide prevention advocates – stay tuned…

Next blog:

Social Entrepreneurship Part II: Working Minds for Youth – Raising Money and Awareness for Suicide Prevention

How have you seen social enterprises impact communities?

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