With concepts and movements such as social entrepreneurship, environmental sustainability, and social responsibility, it is crucial that we pay close attention to the persuasive uses of the terms as well as to their practical implication. All of them are contested, value-laden labels that can be used to reference a wide variety of interests, motives, activities and outcomes.
Depending upon the way in which we choose to view it, the strengths or weaknesses of the concept of social entrepreneurship lie in the fact that most of its applications are in the form of a hybrid between private, non-profit and public sectors. As described, one such hybrid is found in non-profit organizations with an entrepreneurial offshoot that generates revenue for the organization's social objectives. With greater emphasis on the private, for-profit sector, a hybrid model is emerging whereby businesses lend money and expertise to non-profits. Increasingly, this latter model is linked to public pressure for businesses to demonstrate a measure of social responsibility.
The most realistic and desirable way for any business to be socially responsible is through what is called ‘‘strategic philanthropy’’ - selected giving in areas tied directly to the company’s interests and in arenas that the company can justly claim to have knowledge and a direct stake. The use of the term clearly suggests an indirect financial return on the philanthropic investment. Indeed, the exercise of traditional philanthropy does not make good business sense as it does not provide a tangible return. In a more refined consideration of types of philanthropy today, the notion of strategic philanthropy yet emphasizes that highly motivated and visionary business leaders can bring together networks of organizations in new community ventures.
Like the term ‘‘strategic philanthropy’’, ‘‘social entrepreneurship’’ is an articulation, a combination of two concepts that do not naturally fit together and yet which seeks acceptance as common sense. It is the lack of a natural fit that renders the term open to resistance and challenge. Challenges, implicit or explicit, range from different interpretations of how the terms might justifiably be joined to denial that they should be used together at all.
Language is a key component in the shift towards rationalization of the concept of social entrepreneurship. This is because discourse acceptance precedes or runs in parallel with material acceptance. Thus we see the emergence of terms that were previously restricted to the business sector, such as ‘‘social venture capital’’, ‘‘social return on investment’’, ‘‘invest’’ rather than ‘‘donate’’, ‘‘revenue streams’’ and ‘‘client groups’’ applied to the social and public sectors.
If the colonization of the social and public sectors by the language of business is accepted, the breakdown of barriers between the sectors becomes normalized. However, the terms cited are in contrast to the distinction between entrepreneurs who create social or artistic capital rather than financial capital, with social capital referring to that which is valuable to communities.
On the other hand, opposition could arise from the close association of the term ‘‘entrepreneur’’ with the creative and destructive aspects of capitalism. Those who are concerned about the negative aspects of business will be resistant to the blurring of the boundaries between public, private and civil society suggested by social entrepreneurship with the potential for increased influence of business beyond the private sector. The non-profit sector has long been associated with the creation and maintenance of a strong civil society. Marketing of that sector then calls that association into question with concerns for the viability of an independent civil society.
Furthermore, if business has the power to choose which non-profits are to benefit materially through socially entrepreneurial partnerships, what happens to those that are not chosen and therefore are marginalized?
A parallel can be drawn between the concept of social entrepreneurship and that of sustainability because sustainability is equally open to broad interpretation. Like social entrepreneurship, sustainability can favor either the social and environmental or the economic sectors, depending upon which model is adopted. Strong sustainability favors the social and environmental over economic development, upholding the social values of a truly civil society based social entrepreneurialism. Interpretations are derived from the beliefs and experiences of individuals. Social entrepreneurs and their work should ultimately be judged by the quality of the social outcomes, and that assessment should be made independently of the private interests of those entrepreneurs.