Social Entrepreneurship Revisited

Not just anyone, anywhere, in any organization can make breakthrough change

Social entrepreneurship is one of the most alluring terms on the problem-solving landscape today, and is in use even in the new Obama administration. The President is quite familiar with the term and has embraced a first-of-its-kind investment fund for social entrepreneurship.

The question is not whether social entrepreneurship is a term in good currency, but what it actually means. This question motivated my three-year search for social entrepreneurship, which was funded by the Skoll and Ewing Marion Kauff man foundations.

Ashoka founder and CEO Bill Drayton first used the term “social entrepreneurship” in the early 1980s, and it continues to inspire images of audacious social change—the kind that sweeps away the old approaches to solving intractable social problems such as disease, hunger, and poverty. Like business entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship involves a wave of creative destruction that remakes society. Although we will always need traditional social services— even more during times of great economic turmoil—social entrepreneurship focuses on changing the underlying dynamics that create the demand for services in the first place. Instead of treating society’s distress, social entrepreneurship holds hope for eliminating the distress altogether.

Although people generally agree on this broad definition of social entrepreneurship, confusion reigns over the specifics. Some observers believe that the social entrepreneur himself or herself is the linchpin of change, whereas others focus on the idea, the opportunity for change, or the organization that provides the muscle for scaling up to maximum effect. But which one of these four components comes first? Which one is most important for imagining change, launching an idea, accelerating diffusion, and sustaining impact long enough to create a wave of creative destruction?

The answer depends largely on the assumptions underlying one’s notion of social entrepreneurship. My own journey through this thicket of assumptions began with an article I published in the fall 2006 Stanford Social Innovation Review, titled “Reshaping Social Entrepreneurship.” In that article, I argued for an inclusive, big-tent definition of the term social entrepreneurship that acknowledged the small contributions of many people, groups, and organizations.

Since that time, though, I have drilled through hundreds of articles and books on social and business entrepreneurship, and I have surveyed 131 highly, moderately, and not-too-entrepreneurial organizations. And I discovered that many of the assumptions that I rejected in 2006 turned out to be true after all. Whereas I once believed that virtually everyone could become a social entrepreneur, I am now convinced that there are special sets of attitudes, skills, and practices that make social entrepreneurs and their work distinctive from more traditional public service. As a result, I have become much more concerned about how we can identify potential social entrepreneurs, give them the training and support they need, and increase the odds that their work will succeed.


Here are four assumptions about social entrepreneurship that I initially rejected, but now accept:

  1. Social entrepreneurs are not like other high achievers. I initially rejected the notion that social entrepreneurs bring unique motives,behaviors, and insights to the socially entrepreneurial process. I assumed, wrongly, that they are deflected into social entrepreneurship by the same kinds of opportunities that exist for any pattern-breaking enterprise. My research suggests otherwise. Social entrepreneurs appear to make quite deliberate decisions to solve social problems, rather than simply stumbling into their work by accident or circumstance. They are often quite sober about their decision to attack a social problem, and they usually understand the consequences of challenging the status quo. I also find that social entrepreneurs are driven by a persistent, almost unshakable optimism. They persevere in large part because they truly believe that they will succeed in spite of messages to the contrary. This optimism can border on overconfidence, but is essential to their 24/7 commitment.
  2. Socially entrepreneurial ideas are big. There is considerable debate about the proper scale of socially entrepreneurial ambition. Some argue that small-scale change is just as important as global intent, whereas others reserve the term social entrepreneurship for grand impacts, such as those that the microfinance movement has achieved. Through my research, I find that the greatest ideas often start small, but eventually expand to break the social equilibrium. And so although social entrepreneurs should celebrate small-scale changes, they should ultimately aim to diff use those changes as broadly as possible. Likewise, when small-scale ideas have potential, funders ought to invest in spreading them. And where large-scale ideas have shown proof of concept, funders should provide the dollars for growth. To date, most of the work on social entrepreneurship focuses on imagination, invention, and launch. But ultimate impact requires scaling up, diffusion, sustained pressure, and navigation of what J. Gregory Dees, professor of business at Duke University, calls the “ecosystem” of change. (See “Cultivate Your Ecosystem” in the winter 2008 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.)
  3. Opportunities for grand change come in waves. I initially believed that the time was always ripe for sweeping changes. But there is good evidence that socially entrepreneurial opportunities arise during specific punctuations, or focused periods in history. During these periods, the prevailing wisdom weakens, revealing the failure of the status quo to solve problems such as inequality. Having tried for a half century to improve the public schools with little sustainable success, for example, we acquire an appetite for new ideas. These punctuations in history fuel the hope for widespread change and the experimentation that drives it. Today, the world appears to be experiencing a punctuation of opportunities, which is drawing new funders into the field of social entrepreneurship. No one knows for sure how long these punctuations last—a few years, a decade, or more?—but we do know that these punctuations produce a wave of activity that feeds on itself.
  4. Socially entrepreneurial organizations are built to make change. I used to believe that all organizations, big or small, old or young, could generate social entrepreneurship. But over the past three years, I have found considerable evidence that most socially entrepreneurial organizations, new and old, are different from traditional organizations. They are relatively fl at, singularly focused on the idea of change, and often inexperienced in the administrative procedures needed for transparency and tight governance. These differences from traditional organizations are both strengths and weaknesses. Driven to succeed at all costs, socially entrepreneurial organizations may neglect organizational infrastructure, possibly resulting in underinvestment in measurement and governance. They may also be so committed to their path that they reject the possibility that they could be wrong, with all that entails for wasted motion and delay. Search as I did, I found little interest among social entrepreneurs and their funders in research and development. Funders seem to prefer new organizations as platforms for change. At best, they dismiss old organizations as incapable of change. At worst, they view them as protectors of the status quo. Yet I find considerable evidence that old organizations can produce change, especially if they are able to rejuvenate themselves. In short, socially entrepreneurial organizations do not have to be new.


Although my definition of social entrepreneurship has become more exclusive over the past three years, I still stand by two of my original, more inclusive assumptions. First, social entrepreneurs do not always act alone. Lone-wolf social entrepreneurs can and do succeed, but so do teams, networks, and communities. Even as the field concentrates on finding heroic individuals, the research suggests that teams of experts often hammer together big breakthroughs. Research on small-business entrepreneurship suggests that teams produce more patents than do lone wolves.

I also circle back to my original assumption that old organizations can nurture social entrepreneurship. Creating a socially entrepreneurial organization within an existing structure is no doubt difficult—rejuvenation involves great pain and disruption. But older agencies can harbor social entrepreneurship if they reverse the bureaucratic effects of organizational aging, as well as through incubators, acquisitions, spin-off s, and more general reward and incentive systems designed to provoke new ideas. The challenge is to protect innovations from people within the organization who have a stake in the status quo. There is nothing stopping an existing organization from producing change except itself.

After my own search for social entrepreneurship, I conclude that the concept is definitely real. I have come to believe in a more exclusive definition, but one that allows for more varieties of endeavor. At the same time, I have also come to believe that social entrepreneurs need considerable help to succeed. Just as organizations such as Ashoka provide networks and consulting for their entrepreneurs, schools of public service can off er training for nascent entrepreneurs and executives.

Perhaps it is just naïveté that drives me, but I believe that this punctuation in history can produce a wave of new entrepreneurs who can come together through networks to break down the social equilibrium. The more the better.

Paul C. Light is a professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service and the author of The Search for Social Entrepreneurship (Brookings Institution Press, 2008).

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • Thank you for this insightful article.
    I am a school teacher and former business entrepreneur. I look at my teaching practice as a social entreprenuerial endeavor. Am I stretching the author’s Social entrepreneurship concept too far?

  • BY Hima Batavia

    ON May 23, 2009 12:45 AM

    Great article. Glad to hear that social entrepreneurship is here to stay, and not just being coined as a “passing trend.”

  • BY Houghton Wan

    ON May 25, 2009 10:06 AM

    China is picking this up.

    I hope that Ashoka or other inspiring organizations can partner with us in the future so that more sustainable changes can take place eventually.

    We need more social entrepreneurs who can take up one social problem during their life time.

    And I see the time is coming!!!

  • BY Emad Rahim

    ON June 7, 2009 07:37 PM

    Great article - very insightful! I think universities should also look into developing a social entrepreneur degree program. We need to teach people how to do business consciously. We can develop profit and still be sustainable at the same time. I think with the stimulus package focusing on sustainability and nonprofit projects, there will be more creative businesses with a social mission attach to it. At less that’s what I hope – Emad Rahim

  • Sam, this post shares a perspective that may answer your question. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well…

  • BY Linus Gabrielsson

    ON June 22, 2009 02:29 AM

    Interesting reading indeed!

    I think the precise definition is perhaps less important than providing perspectives on what actually works. And even though the question is formulated towards the former, fortunately most of the answer part of the article is directed at the later.

    I futher agree that social entrepreneurs need help, and perhaps also the right environment and timing, to succeed. Apart from networking, consulting, and education though, I think there also need to be a functioning market for social investors and volunteers for funding and working with social entrepreneurs. This is the gap we are looking to address with our online social entrepreneurship marketplace Socential.

  • Venkat's avatar

    BY Venkat

    ON July 8, 2009 12:27 AM

    Indeed a thought provoking article.

    This article is helping me in my quest for aligning my career interest with a social involvement, building on my strengths. It helps crystalizing my scattered and ambiguous set of thoughts and associating it with a larger social developement impacted by the current Industrialization practices.

    The escence of the article, I take it, is - “Social Enterpreunership solves a Social problem”.

    I would highlight another point to this, by saying, its not just the help that would suffice, but also an alignment with the Governmental systems and bureacratical alignment for the corresponding societies. Fundamentally, I see the Social entreprenuship complements the Governmental and Non Governmental contributions to bring socialism to the economic development, but for the fact that, it brings in the Corporatized way of social welfare.

  • BY Jessica Margolin

    ON July 9, 2009 03:24 PM

    Fantastic article! I particularly find the part where you point out that social entrepreneurs don’t just random-walk into their area, but instead choose it deliberately.

    I do have a few questions I hope you can clarify:

    First, aren’t all entrepreneurs relatively optimistic and don’t they typically show that tendency to assume they’re right regardless of evidence to the contrary? Are social entrepreneurs more so, or more frequently, or more enabled than “standard” entrepreneurs?

    Second, do social entrepreneurs believe there already is a body of research that has led to certain conclusions that have nevertheless not been acted upon? I wonder for example how Charter Schools tend to point to research that school districts can’t move quickly on even if they intend to do so. Do social entrepreneurs have more substantiated information to assert, “Come on! We all KNOW this is true!”

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

  • I’m a fan of Paul Light and of SE, but isn’t this exactly how Drayton originally defined social entrepreneurship?

    Here’s Ashoka’s definition:

    Sam: For me to consider you a SE, I’d expect you to leave teaching in order to spread your innovative methods/practices (aka, your big idea) in your district/country/world, thus revolutionizing the practice of teaching. That’s most likely the story of a leading SE (what Ashoka elects), but there are large number of SEs who don’t succeed (just as most BE fail), but they don’t stop trying to innovate.

  • “First, aren’t all entrepreneurs relatively optimistic”

    All entrepreneurs are not afraid of taking a risk and the successful ones are doggedly determined and can get back up from the canvas after getting knocked down. They have a belief that they will not fail. I’m not sure if that’s optimistic. I’ve met SEs who are pessimistic, but never defeatist.

    “Second, do social entrepreneurs believe there already is a body of research that has led to certain conclusions that have nevertheless not been acted upon? I wonder for example how Charter Schools tend to point to research that school districts can’t move quickly on even if they intend to do so. Do social entrepreneurs have more substantiated information to assert, “Come on! We all KNOW this is true!””

    It depends on the SE, but usually research on really new ideas is slim, over time—and usually because of their work—that research reinforces a big idea. I’d certainly say that “Come on!” comes from the gut and first-hand experience. Your example is a good one where there is research but no vehicle which also happens.

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

  • BY Amy Pearl

    ON July 9, 2009 03:58 PM

    Thank you Paul. Good to hear reflection on earlier definitions and assumptions. Its sounds like we’ve moved past the definitions of what is or what isn’t, to what do change leaders need and how can we recognize them to help move them forward? 

    I am interested in how you arrived at some of your new results. You say your research suggests, “Social entrepreneurs appear to make quite deliberate decisions to solve social problems, rather than simply stumbling into their work by accident or circumstance.” So, you had to have identified your research pool as being “social entrepreneurs” in some way in order to say what they are ‘like.’ What was your criteria? Success? Impact? Ashoka Fellows?

    I will assume you identified them as social entrepreneurs AFTER they had proven their impact rather than try to determine “Do you have what it takes?” But, this is what engages us.

    What we do at Springboard Innovation… enabling ordinary citizens to become extraordinary leaders of change… depends on how well we recognize and prepare likely leaders. ( We offer Local Agenda, a 16-week program as a community-based program available to anyone, to help people envision, design, and launch a strategic solution for improving the world. And it seems to work.

    I would invite you to visit one of our cohorts mid-stream and see if you can pick them out. The commited and optimistic among us, ready to take on a challenge that matters to them. They are the most deliberate people you’ll meet. And, they often surprise themselves at how their commitment grows with knowledge and experience.

    Your description of the organizations they build also rings true, as our “graduates” begin to form new kinds of change organizations - clearly away from heirarchical or traditional institutions. Yes, they need lots of help, but even community members are stepping up to support them through new online tools that elevate their ideas (see but it is refreshing to hear a researcher indicate that, while not everyone can or will become a social entreprenuer, with the right determination, commitment, training, and funding, you can make a whole lot of difference.

    This new breed of change organization is a welcome addition to the wave we’re riding. Many thanks for your contributions!

  • BY Jessica Margolin

    ON July 9, 2009 04:03 PM

    Robert, thank you for your answers! I’m going to need to ponder those for a while.

    Sam, I think there’s a related term, “Social Capital,” which is used as a broadstroke to encompass Intellectual, Environmental/Health, Spiritual Capitals - anything non-financial.  So teaching absolutely builds social capital, as people learn. (See

    The difference between that and social entrepreneurialism is obviously the “entrepreneur” part, and someone who builds some form of non-financial capital as their main focus.  Really I’m saying that you’re building an intangible asset, “knowledge.” You can do that in an entrepreneurial way or in a stodgy school district using standard texts with tried-and-true teaching techniques.

    I wonder if Paul in his attention to SE activities within existing infrastructures might look at it in the framework removing “entrepreneur” from the equation. For example, building intangible assets can build long-term competitive advantage in a firm, or can help a firm manage risk by being a good corporate citizen in its relationship with the surrounding physical community. In that case, the change agents would be some subset of the people they always are, nucleating new ideas from within an existing infrastructure.

  • BY Mitchell Baker

    ON July 9, 2009 07:55 PM

    Very refreshing to see someone describe a change of opinion, and why.  It would also be interesting to think about social entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in general.  Silicon Valley is full of entrepreneurs, and they /we are as flawed a bunch of people as any group, and yet push a lot of change forward.  Maybe the idea of “change” or the commitment to change is common, and certainly a lot of the drive, over- certainty are.

    The two groups may be very different.  Living at the intersection as we do at Mozilla, I hope to see more thoughtful pieces on this and related topics.

  • BY John Madigan

    ON July 9, 2009 11:58 PM

    Thoughtful piece. You touched upon an interesting challenge for social entrepreneurs:

    “Driven to succeed at all costs, socially entrepreneurial organizations may neglect organizational infrastructure, possibly resulting in underinvestment in measurement and governance.”

    Measurement is a tricky subject. How does the social entrepreneur measure impact? How do they translate the social problems/solutions into something that funders and/or the public can understand, empower, and embrace?

    Part of the definition of a social entrepreneur seems to me to be the conscious decision to engage a problem where measuring impact (and success) is often vague, ambiguous, and unrelated to typical financial guideposts.

    Thoughts welcome.

  • I’m rarely moved to comment negatively on people’s work, but this article adds nothing to the debate. Why did you need three years and funding to work this out? Most social entrepreneurs could’ve told you this in a short conversation. Your conclusion that social entrepreneurship is real is particularly pointless, given that there clearly is a significant global movement around social enterprise, from funding to thought leadership, and a swathe of people who define themselves as social entrepreneurs. You couldn’t possibly have concluded anything else, without appearing foolish.

  • BY Anne Field

    ON July 19, 2009 11:33 AM

    As someone who covers both social enterprise and entrepreneurship, my observation is that optimism is a key ingredient in entrepreneurship of any stripe. It is a necessity.

    At the same time your observation that social entrepreneurs may be so devoted to their mission that they reject the possibility they could be wrong—that runs counter to another key entrepreneurial ingredient—the ability to make changes constantly to the model, to admit mistakes quickly, turn on a dime and rejigger the approach. It’s one of an entrepreneur’s main competitive advantages.  And, that would be true for nonprofit and for-profit social enterprises, as well.

    On a different note—opportunities for change come in waves. Not only is that true, but we seem to riding one of those waves now. Many people in the social enterprise community feel that popular disgust with the excesses of capitalism is creating a fertile environment for social entrepreneurship, as well as new approaches to capitalism.

    I write a lot about these issues in my blog, Not Only for Profit.

  • Honestly, this was ridiculously long and provided no value for the time spent. Use examples, statistics of something of value other than your personal opinion to actually build strong articles. You might as well have just said Clifford the Dog is Big. That’s great but examples like the current scale of the market etc from credible sources would of provided much more value.

  • Hi. Interesting article. 

    One aspect I think needs to be more central in the definition is a social entrepreneur’s role, is not in changing underlying dynamics, but in adapting and using new strategies to overcome specific constraints—not only for business models dealing with the poor, but for other social endeavors that aim to sustain themselves.

    I would have liked to see some examples of social businesses fitting into this article.  The idea of talking only about theory without specific example worries me that our trusted institutions and smart people are spending so much money and time focusing on labeling and not doing.  I have the same worry for myself, as I should get back to my business plan!

  • Ok.  I was trying to be polite, but there’s something that really bothers me about this and other articles I’ve read recently on social blogs.  I think it is related to an article someone posted on SocialEdge about “Are the only social entrepreneurs Anglo-Saxon”.  My response had to do with all of us Anglo-Saxons just talking a lot more, among other things.  We also research a lot more about once-removed ideas and we care about caring.  I’m struggling to catch hold of the essence of my annoyance and it is difficult.  I think the root of this is that when we’re from areas in the world where there is not major poverty and economic distress, we find the idea of social entrepreneurship so deliciously good, but not necessary, not crucial to putting food on the table.  That somehow translates to a loving inward gaze every time we make a social effort or spend years researching the definition of something.  It’s not that I don’t find research valuable, I do, however I find the way this and other bloggers present their projects to be a bit self-congratulatory. 

    If someone can help me understand why this makes me angry, and how to avoid this problem, please email me:  .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).  Maybe it’s all a case of middle class guilt, as Pelle Carlberg would say.

  • Ashley's avatar

    BY Ashley

    ON July 24, 2009 04:22 AM

    Just one more quick response

    >>Fantastic article! I particularly find the part where you point out that social entrepreneurs don’t just random-walk into their area, but instead choose it deliberately.<<
    Some do. I met one yesterday who started a courier business run by deaf children because one day he got a courier and realized that a courier could be deaf and do his job. So he started a business. Bam. deaf kids employed and empowered.

    >>First, aren’t all entrepreneurs relatively optimistic and don’t they typically show that tendency to assume they’re right regardless of evidence to the contrary? Are social entrepreneurs more so, or more frequently, or more enabled than “standard” entrepreneurs?<<
    Entrepreneurs are people!

    >>Second, do social entrepreneurs believe there already is a body of research that has led to certain conclusions that have nevertheless not been acted upon? I wonder for example how Charter Schools tend to point to research that school districts can’t move quickly on even if they intend to do so. Do social entrepreneurs have more substantiated information to assert, “Come on! We all KNOW this is true!”<<
    See the UNDP, Monitor Group, C.K. Prahalad, etc. for some frameworks and matrices that capture a lot of cross-sector data. While most social entrepreneurs don’t study these things and spend most of their time working really really hard, they probably agree with them, or “KNOW this is true” as you say.


  • BY Mrim Boutla

    ON February 5, 2010 10:14 AM

    Thank you for this insightful article Dr Light!

    Since participating in the 2004 Public Service Careers Workshop that was co-organized by Wagner and, I have been thinking about the meaning of social entrepreneurship.  Your talk at the workshop as well as your articles and research papers provide an excellent framework for us, career coaches, to enable future social entrepreneurs to accelerate their learning and maximize their impact! 

    Regarding your point about social entrepreneurs acting alone versus surrounded by a team - during their participation on a panel at the 2009 Net Impact Conference, Rebecca Onie (CEO, Project Health) and Seth Goldman (TeaEO, Honest Tea) both highlighted the importance of the teams that surround, challenge and support most social entrepreneurs and how they lead to an amplified impact.  The incomplete leader model fits their views very well and might be of help in your future research - - Research on these team members, their characteristics and how similar or different their roles are from leadership teams in companies, non-profits, and government structures would be most interesting!

    Regarding your point about old organizations being capable of transforming themselves, there is evidence of this across sectors:  In the private sector, GE and Walmart come to mind (of course their motives and impact are debatable).  In addition, the success stories and case studies provided by the Net Impact Impact at Work program might be great data points as you continue exploring the challenges and rewards social INTRApreneurs face in any organization as they become positive changemakers inside existing structures -  Are social entrepreneurs and social intrapreneurs similar or different?  What motivates them, or guide their choice to create something new versus change an existing structure? 

    Much research is needed in this field, and I look forward to your future articles on these subjects.

    Mrim Boutla

  • BY Roger hamilton

    ON July 21, 2012 02:37 AM

    Learning the depths of Social Entrepreneurship has
    made me realize many things in my own life. I have been
    taking the wrong approach towards life which took me towards
    the path I never wanted to take in the first place. Beginning
    with the crystal clear clarity about my goals and taking every
    one I know into consideration is the next step I intend to take
    very seriously.

  • BY Roger hamilton

    ON July 21, 2012 02:42 AM

    Knowing the language of your target clients becomes an essential element towards
    success which helps many entrepreneurs gain that extra edge against their competitors.
    Thanks for sharing this information.

    Contact :-

  • BY daniel craig

    ON April 12, 2014 05:29 AM

    Social entrepreneurship is more important nowadays. And your article gives a great share of knowledge. Really insightful article. Very Good for those who are making fresh start.

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.