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Social Entrepreneurship: Evolving Definitions

By Tom Watson on March 27, 2007No Comment

To get a broad view of the gathering’s history and
direction, I sat down with Alex Nicholls, the first lecturer in social
entrepreneurship appointed at the University of Oxford and the first
staff member of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. Dr. Nicholls
organized the first Skoll World Forum in 2004 and has subsequently co-organized
the event. He is also developing a web-based university social entrepreneurship
academic network in partnership with Ashoka.

For someone who is arguably a founding member of a well-publicized
movement with both money and celebrity support behind it, Nicholls is
refreshingly skeptical.

"Social entrepreneurship, as a term, is still to a degree up
for grabs. It has moved from being almost exclusively in North
America, to being much more global. There is a much richer understanding
of what social entrepreneurship might mean."

Though the patron of this conference is an American billionaire, the international flavor of this conference is intentional, said Dr. Nicholls.

"For instance, here we see it very differently from the country
that is the prime example of capitalism in the world. We see a much bigger role
for government. Some think it’s simply business and business modeling. We think
it’s a broader church than that.”

The rest of the world is starting to pay attention as well.

"I also think we have a very different view of action.
There’s a richness coming in, much more international flavor, really an
explosion of interest. Economists are taking this seriously now, whereas four
years ago they wouldn’t touch it."

"Social innovation" is this year’s theme. And yet Nicholls is honest about the "blurry definition" of social entrepreneurship. "It allows for many ideas, however you locate it
in your own culture."

Social entrepreneurship roughly includes the wider worlds of business, governments, and the third sector – and there are now more than 200 programs globally in universities around the phenomenon. But how is it redefining philanthropy? 

"I think it leads to more engaged philathropy," said Nicholls, "more innovative, more results-oriented part of social entrepreneurship, absolutely. Some of the iIdeas around venture philanthropy – demanding of some sort of
performance measures – idea of social change is bigger than capital flows themselves."

If social entrepreneurs are the "frontline drivers of social change" is there a fit within this movement for the for-profit companies?

"For-profit business, that’s where we have some difficlty –
it gets more complex. The first and prime motivation is not to address a social and
environmental benefit, the first priority is to make profit. And you’re always going to
struggle to deliver the social and environmental value that a public entity can do. A  ’social business’ may or may not make a profit , but we shouldn’t
be naïve. It is possible to do both but historically companies haven’t chosen
to do that."

So Richard Branson’s commitment of $3 billion in transportation profits to renewable fuel research – but within othe profit-making companies – isn’t really social entrepreneurship?

"I don’t want to be too purist about it, am I delighted by
what Branson’s doing – he’s a creative innovative guy, absolutely – but putting right the
damage you’re doing is the minimum a corporate entity should undertake."

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