Social Enterprises: Tools in the Hands of Social Entrepreneurs to Catalyse Positive Social Change

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 1948) states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. This statement can be regarded as a reference to the activity of social enterprises.

Social entrepreneurship reflects “processes underlying innovative and entrepreneurial activity for social purposes” (Luke and Chu 2013). This [1]

unique approach to social problems and needs cuts across sectors and disciplines, since it is regarded as a multi-dimensional construct which blurs boundaries among private, public, and civil society (Johnson 2000; Dees 2001; Hartigan 2002; Bornstein 2004; Nicholls 2005). Dees (2001, p. 1) presents social entrepreneurship as a combination of

passion of a social mission with an image of businesslike discipline, innovation and determination commonly associated with, for instance, the high-

tech pioneers of Silicon Valley.

Social entrepreneurship describes the change it expects to be generated through social entrepreneurial activity that, as Harding and Cowling (2004, p. 5) suggest, is “some form of activity that has community or social goals at its heart”. The words ‘passion’ and ‘determination’ that Dees (2001) relates to social entrepreneurship underlie the human drive to pursue a social mission. Such a drive has a level of professional motivation, but also a deeper, personal level, due to the desire to be involved in a social activity. We can thus find ‘pragmatic idealism’ in social entrepreneurship (Fulton and Dees 2006, p. 6), as the phenomenon is related to both passion for a social mission and the ability to observe reality, draw conclusions, and act responsively and wisely. Thus, this ability is related to “recognising and resourcefully pursuing opportunities to create social value” (Centre for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship 2009). The results of this process are innovative solutions, approaches, or methods allowing one to more effectively address social needs and further create social value. It has been acknowledged that social entrepreneurship is associated with innovation, which has an important role to play in social value generation (Dees 2001; Fulton and Dees 2006). Therefore social entrepreneurship’s goal is to stay alert to opportunities and convert identified opportunities into socially useful innovations in order to effectively address particular social problems and needs. By saying ‘an image of businesslike discipline’, Dees (2001) indicates that social enterprises (non-profits) ought to perform efficiently and thus act professionally, as do successful ‘for-profits’.

Attributes assigned to social entrepreneurship such as a social mission, opportunity recognition, innovative approaches, and professional, businesslike operation depict the complexity of the phenomena embedded in the combination of both social and entrepreneurial factors. It further means that social entrepreneurship combines the spirit of enterprise with that of volunteerism. All of these attributes of social entrepreneurship serve to more efficiently complete a social mission and, as Mair and Marti (2006) as well as Perrini (2006) argue, they make it an important power in the economy, one that initiates constructive change in society.

The positive social change generated through social entrepreneurship reflects not only the attainment of assumed social goals but also restores human dignity. Dignity can be understood as “a value which is held universally and applies to all human beings’ inherent and intrinsic worth” (Misztal 2013, p. 101). “Human dignity encompasses in one term all things valuable to human beings” (Pirson 2014 , p. 6) and that term in turn reflects “priceless aspects of humanity” such as character, integrity, knowledge, wisdom, love, and trust (Hurka cited in Pirson 2014, p. 6, and Pirson and Dierksmeier 2014, p. 9). The concept of an equal dignity of all human beings comes from ideas of universal rights (Todorov cited in Stevenson 2014), such as the right to work, to acquire an education, and to be treated with respect. Universal rights encompass access to basic needs such as safe drinking water, sanitation, a clean environment, and the right to make one’s own decisions. However, human dignity, though proclaimed to be equal and available to all, is in reality only accessibly to those with a good education, material wealth, and intellectual resources (Holloway cited in Dierksmeier 2011, and Pirson and Dierksmeier 2014). Those who are denied the ability to enter this world of so-called universal rights by accident of birth or circumstance are, in fact, denied dignity and respect. The European Union (cited in Council of Europe 2013) understands this exclusion from the system of universal rights as “a denial of human dignity and fundamental rights, which includes the right to sufficient resources and social protection enabling the effective enjoyment of the rights to health, housing, employment and training”. Social entrepreneurs are aware that those less privileged than they must fight to achieve even basic rights, and that this struggle is often impossible without the help and support of other people, people with the means to target those social problems and needs through which human dignity can be re-established. It is argued that there is both inherent dignity as a result of being human, and conditional or earned dignity as a consequence of one’s actions (Dierksmeier 2011; Pirson 2014 ; Pirson and Dierksmeier 2014). Social enterprises try to restore inherent dignity by providing those whose dignity has been shaken with tools for earning back their dignity. Social enterprises bring about systematic and enduring change in people and society (Fulton and Dees 2006) and therefore they do not simply provide people with material items they lack; rather, they equip them with the necessary means and values to enter into the world of universal rights, and show them how to help themselves. For example, some social enterprises are fighting poverty by teaching people money management, or helping children to receive an education. These projects entail restoring in people a sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Re-established dignity and purpose, revived hope, provided opportunity, and restored self-reliance create a solid base to build on in the future and to earn dignity. Hence dignity restoration can be seen as an indirect goal of social entrepreneurship, because it is not usually named as a specific goal, but instead revealed gradually, as the main goal is pursued and finally achieved.

Social entrepreneurship is a method of action reflected in the activity of social enterprises and used by social entrepreneurs. The social enterprise, as defined by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, is “an initiative of social consequences created by an entrepreneur with a social vision” (Chen and Kelly 2015, p. 102). This type of organisation practises social entrepreneurship since it conducts social entrepreneurial activity to pursue collective benefits (Laville and Nyssens 2001). Introducing positive social change is the major objective of social enterprise and the raison d’etre for its existence. Social enterprises are ready to use any tools at their disposal to achieve their goals. They are open to any new solutions and approaches which go with their ethical objectives and legal norms, and which lead them to the fulfilment of their social mission, where the indirect goal of this social mission is dignity restoration. These organisations occur in the overlapping space among the not-for-profit, for-profit, and public sectors (Perrini and Vurro 2006), where they skilfully mix a voluntary background and an entrepreneurial spirit. Thus, social enterprises are organisations that “have a social and societal purpose combined with an entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector” (European Commission

2006). This mixed approach depicts the social enterprise as an organisation dealing directly with social issues (as an inheritance from the third sector), and brings about faster social changes than mainstream enterprises. These changes are also more effective than those brought in by other non-profits since the social enterprise widely uses entrepreneurial tools (as being associated with traditional enterprises), where, as after Dees (2001), innovation is one of the factors that differentiates social enterprises from other not-for-profits.

Social entrepreneurs and their followers act through social enterprises in order to pursue social goals. Every “social enterprise starts thanks to a social entrepreneur” (Imperatori and Ruta 2006, p. 109) perceived as a leader in the social economy[2] that realises projects by using entrepreneurial tools and methods (Defourny and Develtere 1999). The social entrepreneur is believed to be a change agent for society who grabs opportunities missed by others, makes systems better, and introduces new approaches and solutions in order to create a better society (Dees 2001; Ashoka 2008) . Changing social systems is extremely difficult, since the social entrepreneur must change attitudes, expectations, and behaviours, and must overcome disbelief, prejudice, and fear in a situation where supporters of the existing status quo defend it fiercely (Bornstein 2004). Apart from barriers to realising their plans, social entrepreneurs not only make others follow them in putting their passion into action (Ashoka 2008), but they also grow confidence in other people (Swamy cited in Prabhu 1999). This ability to sway people to their vision, and this trust given by people to the entrepreneurs, comes from social entrepreneurs’ values and beliefs, as reflected in their attitudes and actions. Social entrepreneurial leaders are motivated by altruism, social responsibility, and by their values and beliefs (Prabhu 1999), and this is why social entrepreneurs do not feel good about the status quo and tend to change society (Prabhu 1999; Bornstein 2004). They are sensitive to others’ feelings and therefore they recognise the needs of other people and respond to them (Swamy cited in Prabhu 1999). Moreover, they have a strong ethical impetus which is the basis of their action (Bornstein 2004). Because they listen to the “voice of the community”, their actions are generally successful, as they are based on and led by the needs of people (Thompson 2002, p. 416).

  • [1] *The social enterprise involved in the author’s ethnographic study on the identity of the socialenterprise conducted from March 2007 to October 2008. The real name of the organisation is indisguise.
  • [2] The social economy sector is often referred to as the non-profit sector, the third sector, the voluntary sector, the charitable sector or the independent sector (Borzaga and Defourny 2001).
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