In 2013 I co-authored a post on the Skoll Centre blog called “Social Entrepreneurship 101. That blog linkrotted in 2020, so here’s the full text, thanks to the Wayback Machine.
“Social Entrepreneurship,” according to one definition, “strives to solve social problems at a systemic level using innovative, sustainable, scalable, inclusive and measurable approaches.”
In the 1980s, Ashoka Foundation’s Bill Drayton started using the phrase social entrepreneur to describe the people he funded to fix the world’s problems. Thirty years later, we use the phrase (and its sister, impact investing) to encompass nearly all novel do-goodery. The result is that it takes a couple of years working in social entrepreneurship or impact investing before you can get a grip on who’s who and the various meanings that different players attach to the same words. And the upshot is a clear division between insiders and outsiders. This keeps insiders’ jobs safe, I suppose, but it also prevents a lot of smart people from contributing to some of the coolest work on the planet.
So, in an effort to demystify the world of social entrepreneurship and impact investing, here’s a primer edited from a post written during the 2012 Emerge Conference at Oxford. If you’re a veteran, you’ll recognize all these names–and probably roll your eyes at how often the same examples are trotted around stage. If you’re new, we hope this can be a useful starting point.
Why Should We Care About This Social Entreprenonsense?
If you’ve gotten this far, presumably you are already interested in social entrepreneurship. There’s good reason to be. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll be competing for funding and spots at commercial incubators like Y Combinator with social entrepreneurs that have a head start on a compelling, convincing pitch. If you work at a nonprofit, you’ll be fighting for talent and money with a growing, exciting field. If you’re an investor, for-profit impact investors like Bamboo Finance will be pitching the same pension funds that you used to have a lock on. And if you’re a regulator, watch out: millions, and soon billions, of dollars are doing an end-around governments’ own poverty-alleviation and environmental agencies by going through foundations, private companies, and sometimes developed world aid agencies.
To review: (1) Social entrepreneurship is opaque and ill-defined. But (2) It also matters right now and it will matter more in the future. None of that gets at our original question, though–what is it? How can we split up the things people include when they talk about social entrepreneurship?
Many of the leading funders of social entrepreneurship–Acumen, Gray Ghost Ventures, Unitus, Ashoka–cut their teeth on microfinance. In brief, microfinance is the provision of loans, often in the developing world, that are typically at smaller amounts and lower interest rates than existing banks and moneylenders. Kiva, an online marketplace for microloans, is probably the most well-known. Among the other pantheon of microfinance gods are the Grameen Bank (and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus), Accion, and BRAC. Microfinance splits roughly into three camps: first, nonprofit microfinanciers like Grameen; second, government agencies such as USAID and DFID that underwrote the sector for decades; third, for-profit microfinance funders like Unitus, which invested in the for-profit Indian microfinance bank SKS. The latter are the most controversial; in 2010 SKS became the second microfinance bank to list publicly (and make some investors a boatload of money) at the same time that the suicides of some of its clients pushed the industry to the brink of collapse.
As microfinance’s golden age came and quickly passed, many funders moved in the early 2000s to the work of funding startups with high-growth potential and significant social impact. In 2007, these groups created the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) to promote their work. Today, this kind of investing is called impact investing. You might also hear the phrases patient capital, venture philanthropy, or social venture capital.
That work, broadly, is venture capital with a social or environmental twist. Ideally, social entrepreneurs will get seed funding from individual (angel) investors, then work through business incubators like Stanford’s D-Lab, the Unreasonable Institute, or Echoing Green, then receive capital from seed-funders such as the Unitus Seed Fund, the Mulago Foundation, and Village Capital; occasionally angel groups like Toniic and Investors’ Circle step in at this point. The next step up–talking here about amounts in the $500K-2m range–includes Shell Foundation, LGTVP and Skoll Foundation. Moving farther along the funding continuum means tapping deeper pockets like those of Omidyar.
It’s hardly that clean, of course. First, funders like the ones listed above often have multiple funds investing in different amounts, for example. Second, some of these funders give grants to nonprofits (which for-profit investors wouldn’t call “investing”), while others put equity into for-profits targeting mostly middle class consumers (which others wouldn’t call “impact”). Some will even give grants to for-profits while others make loans to non-profits. Third, the funding chain is hardly well-developed: speak to any entrepreneur on the hunt for investment and you’ll walk away more confused about the funding landscape than ever.
Still, the high-growth social enterprises that these groups fund (which are typically listed on the Our Portfolio section of their websites) make up a significant portion of the actual work going on in the arena of social enterprise. D.Light, Aravind Eye Care, Simpa Networks, One Acre Fund, DripTech, Embrace, Envirofit, and Grameen Phone are some of the household names within the social entrepreneurship family, along with Partners in Health, Riders for Health, Root Capital, FairTrade USA, and Teach for America.
What holds these companies together? They’re across the spectrum of developmental stage. Some are for-profit, some are non-profit, and some are hybrids. Some call themselves social enterprises; others blanche at the term. Some are successful and others–honestly–are struggling much more than they or their investors will admit. In large part, what binds these groups together is the network of linkages among the overlapping portfolios of each investors, the investor/donor list of each enterprise, and the incubators that gave them their first jolt. At their core, perhaps, all hearken back to our original definition of a social entrepreneurship: “innovative, sustainable, scalable, inclusive and measurable approaches” to big social and environmental problems. They’re selling more efficient cookstoves, solar-powered replacements for kerosene lanterns, eye surgeries, and irrigation systems to customers who would otherwise never have had access to potentially life-changing goods and services.
But wait! What about…
As social enterprise and impact investing have filtered into common use, a number of other sectors have piped up or piled in: “Hey! We’re already doing that–we’re impact investors, too” or “We’re social enterprises, but in a different way.” Community Development Finance Institutions have been pumping money into low-income communities for decades. Small businesses and the local banks that fund them argue fairly that deep impact is local impact. Fair trade organizations and worker cooperatives like FabIndia work to provide better wages to developing-world commodity farmers. Socially responsible investors have made huge strides in shifting mainstream capital into funds that exclude socially and environmentally hazardous investments.
Big bad governments, international bodies, and major corporations have been looking at market-based solutions to poverty for some time, as well. Major development banks provide capital to infrastructure projects in emerging markets, corporations have graduated from corporate social responsibility to innovative efforts like Vodafone’s M-Pesa and Avon’s “Ladies” in Africa. Traditional banks have, as well: JP Morgan has its own Social Finance unit; Deutsche Bank announced its Essential Capital Fund in September 2012. Bilateral aid organizations (USAID, DFID) were essential to the development of microfinance, and the World Bank and IFC have worked to pull capital and expertise into developing countries since their inception. In the last decade, a new form of finance, called social impact bonds, pulls together private, public, and social sector organizations to drive commercial capital to nonprofit activities.
Where to Show Up: Social Entrepreneurship Conferences and Meetings
Great! You’ve got the lay of the land, and you’ve figured out what you think counts as legitimate social enterprise and what is rubbish. Where are you going to go to meet other people like you? Every year there are a few key conferences and gatherings. Their relative importance shifts over time, but here are the ones that might still matter in 2013. First, there’s SOCAP, the largest gathering of social enterprises and funders on the planet and a complete circus. The Skoll World Forum at Oxford is its upscale version, where heads of state meet the Skoll Foundation’s investees. Opportunity Collaboration is a cozier weekend that in part connects wealthy individuals with entrepreneurs. Other gatherings include: Sankalp, the Intellicap-hosted Indian version of SOCAP; the Emerge Conference, the Skoll World Forum’s younger cousin; and the Foro Latinoamericano de Inversión de Impacto.
What to Read
Congrats. You now know everything you need to know about social enterprise. What should you read to stay up to speed? A couple of years ago, the clearinghouse was Nathaniel Whittemore’s Social Entrepreneurship blog, and no single publication has stepped into that gap. So here’s your RSS feed: Stanford Social Innovation Review, Nextbillion.net, Huffington Post Social Enterprise, Triple Pundit, and Impact IQ.
If you really want to impress, there are a few books you should probably have on your shelf. For a bit of (always inspirational, sometimes fluffy) introduction, scan The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, Out of Poverty by Paul Polak, How to Change the World by David Bornstein, and Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus. For a bit more meat, move on to The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by CK Pralahad, Impact Investing by Emerson and Bugg-Levine and Social Enterprise by Marc Lane. Can’t get enough? The University of San Diego’s Sara Johnson has put together a pretty solid list on impact investing for beginners, and the report on everybody’s tongue in 2012 was “Blueprint to Scale” by Acumen Fund and Monitor.
Mark Hand, Joy Jauer, Sara Johnson, and Kshitij Khurana. Photo Credit: Debbie Levey
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