Got Purpose?

The rapid growth of both the business sector and its social analogue can largely be attributed to the power of Entrepreneurship, a driving force that has propelled large-scale expansion in both sectors.

Social entrepreneurship, as it is commonly understood, is the use of techniques to effect positive social, cultural or environmental change. Though it is distinctly different from its business counterpart, they do share some fundamental similarities. Both social and commercial/traditional entrepreneurship seek to create solutions to tap unserved markets and for both, success means revenues must exceed expenses- profitability is critical. 

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On the other hand, social entrepreneurship is intrinsically linked to improved social, cultural or environmental outcomes, objectives that are not deeply entrenched within the traditional business framework. Often times, traditional entrepreneurs are seen as ‘ruthlessly chasing rapid growth and profitability’, while social entrepreneurs make difficult decisions to strike a balance between the dual motives of sustainable profits and social impact.

While innovative, many initiatives have faced challenges attaining sustainability and reaching a large cross-section of society. Entrepreneurial instincts, talents and skills are not widely possessed by the general population; in addition, social entrepreneurs must also possess a socially motivated outlook. The ability to scale is imperative for social enterprises to be able to solve problems at the magnitude at which they exist- a core measure for the success of any social enterprise. Unfortunately, not enough approaches have been successful- scalable, sustainable and ‘system changing’.

As Bill Clinton was quoted saying, “Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up.” Replicating these solutions has, in many cases, has proved an insuperable challenge. The microfinance revolution stands out as one solution that has radically changed the landscape of financial services, and attained successful replication at scale, but not without its own obstacles including an approximately 30-year period to achieve inclusion.

Increasingly, it appears that the only way forward is through business; what exactly does this mean for social entrepreneurship?

‘System-changing’ transformation has been extremely challenging for traditional non-profits or hybrid organizations that function in relative insulation from mainstream commerce i.e., the balance between quality and impact while replicating the program model.

I imagine that social entrepreneurship will scale only by amalgamation with the conventional market system; where every enterprise strives towards both profit and purpose. This should stem from an increased focus on incorporating social costs and benefits into business decisions and the way we approach business education itself. An altered ‘business mindset’ must come from within the business community so that it is willing to accept or even advocate for this evolution. Social enterprise goes beyond organization construct- it is a shift in values, a philosophy that is not restricted to small business but can be applied to big business as well. Commercial business today relies upon the generation of maximum profits through the exploitation of our resources, this cannot be a sustainable model, since our resources are finite and hence growth in such a model must also to be finite.

As a society, it is not only prudent but also imperative that we do away with this segregation. We should progress towards a society that does not differentiate between economic value and social value.

The world as we know it, has benefited greatly from modern industry and corporations, but they have also brought with them certain social ills. Loss of traditional livelihoods, rampant consumerism, unsustainable practices, increased levels of air, water and land pollution etc. To achieve profits, we often pay an untold environmental or social price that we as a society have only recently begun to address. Social enterprise represents a section of business that looks to make sustainable, reasonable profits and maximize impact; the alternative looks to maximize profit without much attention to social and environmental impact, if at all.

In recent years, there has been an explosive growth of interest within public and private sectors, academia and the citizenry in social enterprise and its various actors. The future holds more promise than ever before, as we progress towards activities that are more conscious where social, cultural and environmental goals are central to their process while maintaining sustainable profits.