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Giving social entrepreneurship a fair go

By Pamela Hartigan - posted Friday, 22 March 2002

When we started to comb the globe 15 months ago for outstanding social entrepreneurs, we faced one major hurdle: The very definition of social entrepreneurship. We found ourselves in the strange situation of having to define social entrepreneurship by what it is not.

Social entrepreneurship is not synonymous with corporate responsibility.

It is not a different form of charity.


Nor are social entrepreneurs simply charities becoming businesses.

That said, social entrepreneurs can be found in the business sector and in the charity sector.

Social entrepreneurship is a term that captures a unique approach to social problems, an approach that cuts across sectors and disciplines.

It is an approach that is grounded in certain values and processes that are common to each social entrepreneur, independent of whether his or her area of focus has been education, health, welfare reform, human rights, workers' rights, environment, economic development, agriculture … and so on.

It is those values and processes that set the social entrepreneur apart from the rest of the crowd of well-meaning people and organizations who dedicate their lives to social improvement.

The best way to describe social entrepreneurship is by example. Let me start out with two. Muhammad Yunus, is the world’s best-known social entrepreneur. Thirty-some years ago, he was a young professor of economics in his native Bangladesh. He was driven to find a way to convince banks to give loans to the poorest people in his country. He was thought to be mad. The poor have no collateral, he was told. Lending them money is folly. So Yunus decided to start a Bank for the poor. The first loan was for about $US30. Today millions, women in particular, have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to the Grameen Bank. The Grameen Bank was the first micro-lending institution in the world. Today, microcredit is mainstreamed even into the most conservative institutions. Yunus changed forever the myth that being poor was synonymous with being a high-risk investment. Grameen’s repayment rate over the years has been between 95 and 98 per cent. Other micro-finance institutions across the world that emulated Grameen report the same returns.


The second example comes from India. In 1972, Ela Bhatt was a lawyer with the Textile Labor Union in Ahmedabad. She realised that 89 per cent of the Indian workforce was made up of impoverished women who eked out their existence through cigarette rolling, waste-picking, salt mining, head loaders, street vendors, and the like. Ela did the unthinkable, again, against much opposition. She formed the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), the first union in the world to organise and empower the poor and self-employed, increasing their bargaining power, economic opportunities, health security and legal representation. Today SEWA is the largest labor union in India and has influenced national and international policies in support of informal employment around the world.

When we talk about the underlying core values that drive social entrepreneurs I would cite:

  • an unwavering belief in the innate capacity of all people to contribute meaningfully to economic and social development;
  • a driving passion to make that happen, be it through a new invention, a different approach, a more rigorous application of known technologies or strategies, or a combination of all three;
  • a practical but innovative stance to a social problem, coupled with dogged determination, that allows them to break away from constraints imposed by ideology or field of discipline, and pushes them to take risks that others wouldn't dare; and
  • a healthy impatience. They don’t do well in bureaucracies because they don't wait for things to happen. They are social change agents that make things happen.
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This is an edited version of a speech given to the 2nd annual Social Entrepreneurs Network Conference, Melbourne, March 4/5 2002. The full transcript can be found here.

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About the Author

Dr Pamela Hartigan is Managing Director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

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