Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know

Story bubbles on world map
Source: Ashoka

Ashoka friends David Bornstein and Susan Davis have recently written a new book on the rise and importance of social entrepreneurship.  The book focuses squarely on what social entrepreneurs do and how they do it and serves as a practical guide to anyone that wants to be a part of the movement.  Many organizations are highlighted throughout the book, and Ashoka is pleased to featured prominently for our contribution to the field.  In particular, a number of Ashoka's specific programs and initiatives—ranging from and Ashoka U to Full Economic Citizenship and Youth Venture—are discussed in-depth.  Over the coming months, we will be publishing brief excerpts in the hope that it will not only inspire you to read more, but also encourage you to get involved.  This, our first installment, is an excerpt from the introduction of the book that describes how the concept of social entrepreneurship evolved into a widespread, global movement that inspires and encourages everyone to become changemakers.  Enjoy!

"Although problems are being attacked from many directions, today's changemakers share one common feature: they are building platforms that unleash human potential.  They struggle to increase the number of people who have the opportunity to contribute their talents to the world.  In so doing, they help more people to live with dignity.

It takes many kinds of actors to advance change: people who initiate new ideas and institutions (or renew old ones); a larger number who collaborate in building those institutions directly; and a much larger number who support those efforts in different ways.  Over the past quarter century, the field of social entrepreneurship has gained a better understanding of the interplay among the roles.  Describing the evolution of thinking like generations of the Worldwide Web would break it down as follows:

Social entrepreneurship 1.0 involved a concerted effort to: (1) Systematically identify people with innovative ideas and practical models for achieving major societal impact; (2) Describe their function in society and shine a spotlight on their work; and (3) Develop support systems to help them achieve significant social impact.

Social entrepreneurship 2.0 shifted into terrain of organizational excellence.  It drew heavily on insights from business strategy, finance, and management and was primarily concerned with helping social entrepreneurs build sustainable, high impact organizations or enterprises.  Many people with expertise in the business sector were attracted to the field during this phase as they discovered new avenues to apply their talents.

Social entrepreneurship 3.0 (today) looks beyond individual founders and institutions to the change-making potential of all people and their interactions.  It recognizes that social entrepreneurship is contagious.  Every person who starts a social change organization emboldens others to pursue their ideas and solutions, whether by building institutions or by strengthening existing solutions through their investing, philanthropy, managing, advocacy, research, teaching, policy making, computer programming, purchasing, writing, and so forth.

The field of social entrepreneurship is improvising its own ecosystem of supports by stimulating more changemaking as it grows.  These developments are spontaneous; there is no single source of leadership, but, rather, countless responses to emerging needs.  They are scattered around the globe.  Individually many of the actions seem small, but they are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.  Taken together, they add up to more than the sum of their parts.


Social entrepreneurship 3.0 is concerned with building platforms that enable more people at every age to think and behave like changemakers and to help them work together powerfully in teams and in teams of teams.  It looks to forge stronger linkages across cultural and disciplinary boundaries, particularly with business and government, and facilitate the rapid circulation and sharing of solutions at the global level.

The study of social entrepreneurship sheds light on how change happens and how societies renew themselves.  It can help explain why government and international aid efforts have often met with limited success or outright failure, and what needs to be done differently in order to achieve better results.  It also adds a dimension to the study of democracy, expanding the role of the citizen beyond choosing government representatives.  In the years ahead, we believe many more citizens will consider it natural to take the lead in the creation of solutions to social problems.  A quarter century ago, it took unusual confidence and vision to become a social entrepreneur.  The role was undefined; examples were rare.  Today, the path is becoming clear."