Friday, November 9, 2012

Is Social Entrepreneurship the Rich Saving the Poor?

Why empowerment and power structures are at the very core of social entrepreneurship. Image from Africa Renewal.

For the past 15 years, I have invested a great deal of time, energy and money in the field of social entrepreneurship. I did this because I believe we need to take very significant actions to address global poverty and socio-political inequality, primarily through the creation of livelihoods and personal wealth. This will only happen by financially and politically empowering the disenfranchised so that they may climb out of poverty.

Social entrepreneurship, if done properly, creates, fosters, and grows communities with new opportunities which were never within their reach before.

Over the years, as the enthusiasm for social entrepreneurship has grown, I have seen all sorts of individuals, teams, and organizations join our ranks to start to form an ecosystem. But I've also observed the term “social enterprise” used in all sorts of ways - some valid, and some completely disingenuous.
Many of these things are well-intentioned and some even make a positive difference in the lives of people and their communities. These activities include corporate social responsibility, ethical and sustainable business, “conscious capitalism,” social innovation - all of these things signal the creation of a new economy; but these models are not actually social entrepreneurship. Engaging with your stakeholders does not, alone, make you a social entrepreneur.

Social entrepreneurship is not about "giving back,” be that in donating 1-100% of your profits to a good cause or slick “buy one, give one” marketing schemes. (And especially not ones with such opaque supply chains as TOMS shoes, where it is unclear who is making the shoes, under what working conditions and how much they are getting paid.)

Social enterprise empowers people so that they can amplify the great work they are doing already. It is not something done to people or for people. It should be a collaborative effort done with and chiefly by those people.

Social entrepreneurship is not about elitist fellowships, conferences, summits, accelerators, coworking spaces, or contests. Social entrepreneurship is not about charity or even about philanthropy, and it's certainly not about wealth redistribution. Social entrepreneurship is about opportunity and power distribution. 
The economy is a human construct. It’s a formalized system for how and why we relate to each other and how and why we create value for our society. Any social enterprise venture must have members of the disenfranchised in positions of power inside the venture, be that as a founder, executive or board member.
Members of privileged groups can be part of the solution by sharing power with underserved communities as they contribute their skills, knowledge and labor to solve their own problems and create value for society. This should be a partnership. Privileged groups should not be saviors or benevolent agents - rather they should be collaborators in creating a healthy economy that benefits everyone.

You don't solve poverty with money. You solve poverty with agency. 

For the past three months, I've had quite a few conversations here in Philadelphia, which is chock full of social problems. I’ve had conversations about how to define social enterprise, what its goal is, and what exactly would change looks like, in the context of a citywide economic development strategy.
After much wheel-spinning, here is what I see as the central tenet of social enterprise: transformational change that, if done properly, creates new, previously out-of-reach opportunities for communities from the ground up.
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Strength to Love.

This philosophy and practice is very much what my role model and hero Muhammad Yunus did in founding and developing Grameen Bank for 30 years.

Read more here.

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