What is Social Entrepreneurism?


Career counseling clients looking to work for a values/community-based organization and earn a decent living are often stumped. They think they must choose between a non-profit whose mission they believe in and not make any money, or sell out their values to earn a better wage. When I’ve asked folks over the past few months if they knew about social entrepreneurism, a hybrid of business and non-profit zeal for social, economic and environmental change, all but one said “no.” Marci Alboher, author of The Encore Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life says social entrepreneurism is:

“Loosely defined, it’s when entrepreneurial techniques are used to achieve social change. Social entrepreneurism is a big tent, covering those working on global issues, those starting organizations to solve community problems; and lot’s in between. It includes for-profit businesses with a social mission; innovative nonprofits that use ideas from business to have a bigger impact; and those adopting new business structures to create hybrids that combine aspects of both nonprofit and for-profit organizations.”

Not a novel approach but one that is gaining in popularity culturally and among academic researchers. The phrase “social entrepreneur” was first used in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a part of the discussion on social change. The term came into wider use in the 1980’s and 1990’s promoted by Bill Drayton the founder of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. Another early promoter was Michael Young of the School for Social Entrepreneurs in the UK, Canada and Australia. Although the terms are fairly new, examples can be found through out history.   A few examples; Florence Nightingale, founder of the first nursing school and developer of nursing practices, and Robert Owen founder of the cooperative movement. Thirty years ago, the community mental health services and resource knowledge of The Family Crisis Center in Costa Mesa, CA, re-purposed itself to offer EAP services to industry in addition to the community services offered to families and adolescents.

A multitude of forms, evolving over time are reaching new levels of synthesis. Corporate giving can now look and sound like social investment and community involvement. Businesses such as Paul Newman’s Salad Dressing donate all profits to charity; other businesses a smaller percentage, resulting in helpful relationships and funding resources for the non-profit and beneficial PR for the business. Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream pioneered limiting the wage gap between owners and employees. Starbucks recently announced that it will cover the cost of on-line college degrees for it’s employees, helping juniors and seniors obtain their degree. Portland’s Central City Concern, a non-profit working to end homelessness, has a business enterprises arm that offers painting, maintenance, janitorial and pest control services. They advertise changing lives, building communities and creating opportunities in the process. Some folks call it the birth of a fourth sector; a converging of motives and methods beyond the commingling of business, government and nonprofit.

We’re very lucky to have a thriving, social entrepreneur community in Portland, Oregon with leading edge incubators, supportive foundations and educational opportunities for upstarts, as well as great coverage from the Portland Business Journal.


“Nonprofits keeping close eyes on the bottom line” reports Wendy Culverwell in Portland Business Journal’s “Non Profit Spotlight” May 9, 2014.   Roundtable participants from Portland’s nonprofit scene declare “earned income matters…(and) are increasingly developing business plans that generate earned income.” Relevant headlines in todays hot discussion of social entrepreneurism.

Then there’s PSU, a wondrous land of resources “for those individuals and organizations committed to fostering economic, social and ecological prosperity through entrepreneurial action.” Quote taken from a description of June 20th’s “Elevating Impact Summit: Lifelong Changemakers” a project of PSU’s network of Impact Entrepreneurs and the Master’s in Business Administration program. (Wish I could have attended, hopefully they’ll do another next year!)

Getting it dialed in? Any immediate responses? Perhaps you’d like to percolate with this information a while. Any next steps you can identify of the exploratory variety? And lastly, who might you want to speak to, or text about any of this?


Originally posted on Career Transition: The Inside Job