I’ve spent the past few months earnestly trying to wrap my head around the set of approaches and practices that I’ve (perhaps crudely) lumped together as “socialX.” In the interest of allowing myself to stop intentionally struggling with terminology, I post here what I’ve found; my understandings as they stand. (Apologies to those to whom this seems elementary and/or nit-picky. I don’t self-identify as an academic, but what I share with them is a keenness towards specificity.)
My motivation for arguably being nit-picky here is rooted in two things: 1) a deep respect for the earnest project of making the world a better place; and 2) a concern that the haphazard or unthoughtful application of some of these labels could result in people taking advantage of them to less-than-altruistic ends, and further, could result in a widespread cynicism towards the earnest project of making the world a better place, if people associate the terminology with the opportunists.
Nothing here is new; my intent has simply been to try to ensure that I’m clear on what these terms mean. By sharing this I figure that I may help others who are new to the field.
(When we subscribe to the Clay Shirky school of knowledge creation, it’s ok to lead with the Wikipedia definition when exploring a topic.)
Wikipedia: “Social innovation refers to new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds and that extend and strengthen civil society.” This is a generously expansive and inclusive definition. ‘Extending and strengthening’ civil society isn’t, I think, something we can define clearly. ‘Meeting social needs’ might be, but even then there’s room for interpretation. What’s clear is that social innovations must meet social needs, and must be “new.”
Young Foundation (specifically, the article titled ‘Social Innovation: what it is, why it matters, how it can be accelerated‘): “innovative activities and services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need and that are predominantly developed and diffused through organisations whose primary purposes are social.” This situates social innovation in an organization, but throws the doors open to initiatives with simply the intent (fulfilled or not) to meet a social need. Their stated intent was to make clear a distinction from innovation in a business context. As such, it appears that the writers of the report believe that social innovation can’t be undertaken by a corporation, and perhaps also not by a government.
Centre for Social Innovation: “Social Innovation refers to new ideas that resolve existing social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges for the benefit of people and planet.” This one is similar to the Wikipedia definition, but curiously includes ideas that resolve challenges outside the social realm. It could reasonably be argued that it’s rare that a real-world problem falls solely within a single realm, and so I appreciate this pragmatic inclusiveness. Their definition goes on: “A true social innovation is systems-changing – it permanently alters the perceptions, behaviours and structures that previously gave rise to these challenges.” CSI thus stratifies social innovation, presumably in response to what’s an otherwise highly-inclusive definition.
Social Innovation Generation: “[social innovation] is an initiative, product or process that profoundly changes beliefs, basic routines, resource and authority flows of any social system in the direction of greater resilience.” Unlike the others, SiG doesn’t start inclusively; profound change is an initial criterion. They keep their definition concise by offloading the complexity onto the terms ‘social system’ and ‘resilience.’
So, based on this subset of definitions, we might conclude that the ‘axes’ of social innovation definitions are:
- necessarily tangible (Young, SiG) or possibly abstract (CSI, Wikipedia)
- within a primarily-socially-oriented organization (Young) or not
- necessarily (SiG) or preferably (CSI) systems-changing
- resilience-directed (SiG) or not
Social entrepreneur / social entrepreneurship
Ashoka: “Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.” Ashoka runs a long-standing fellowship program for social entrepreneurs, and it makes sense that they’d need a tight definition to explain their selection criteria. It sounds like a social entrepreneur is someone who does systems-changing social innovation. It’s worth noting here that a social entrepreneur isn’t, by Ashoka’s definition, a ‘conventional’ entrepreneur with some social interest — social entrepreneurship is distinct. What a conventional entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur share are their innovative solutions, ambition and persistence. Social entrepreneurs are expected to (at least) tackle “major” issues and “wide-scale change,” which could be said to be a higher standard to that to which we’d hold a conventional entrepreneur. Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, is quoted as saying: “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”
The term Ashoka uses to describe those whose work hasn’t yet proven itself to be transformative is “changemaker.” They’ve created a website with a forum to help connect “changemakers” to each other, and to offer stories, ideas and experiences from the work of Ashoka fellows.
Besides the question of “how systemic?,” there’s less disagreement about the definition of social entrepreneur. Here are a few others: Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, Canadian Social Entrepreneurship Foundation, Echoing Green, School for Social Entrepreneurs.
Socialfinance.ca: “Social Finance is an approach to managing money that delivers social and/or environmental benefits, and in most cases, a financial return. Social finance encourages positive social or environmental solutions at a scale that neither purely philanthropic supports nor traditional investment can reach.”
Carlton Centre for Community Innovation: “Social finance is the deliberate and intentional application of tools, instruments and strategies to enable capital to achieve a social, environmental and financial (“blended value”) return.”
These definitions either prefer or exclude initiatives without financial return, presumably because ‘blended value return’ is what sets social finance apart from philanthropy. The ‘mix’ in blended value can, of course, vary widely. As can the mechanisms for social finance. Here’s a partial list:
- impact investing: as an example, Michael Chu said at SECON that the IGNIA Fund has an objective of 25-30% financial return, in additional to “disproportionate impact on the lives of low-income families.”
- socially-responsible investing: “Socially responsible investing is the broad term used to describe investments that reflect investors’ moral and ethical beliefs. SRI instruments are typically publicly traded funds that return to investors market-rate, risk-adjusted financial returns […]” (World Economic Forum)
- social impact bonds: “[A SIB] is a financial instrument that raises private capital, and links financial returns to the achievement of a social outcome. In a successful SIB model, these outcomes will create improvements in the system that create cost savings as well as social benefits, and so fund financial returns to the private capital.” (socialfinance.ca)
- community bonds: “Community Bonds are a debt instrument that enables nonprofits and charities to access capital by leveraging their networks and turning these networks into investors.” (Centre for Social Innovation)
Social finance will never be an area of personal expertise for me, but I believe strongly that the better that a social entrepreneur grasps it, the stronger their models will be.
Corporate Social Responsibility
Wikipedia: “[CSR] is a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model. CSR policy functions as a built-in, self-regulating mechanism whereby business monitors and ensures its active compliance with the spirit of the law, ethical standards, and international norms. The goal of CSR is to embrace responsibility for the company’s actions and encourage a positive impact through its activities on the environment, consumers, employees, communities, stakeholders and all other members of the public sphere. Furthermore, CSR-focused businesses would proactively promote the public interest by encouraging community growth and development, and voluntarily eliminating practices that harm the public sphere, regardless of legality. CSR is the deliberate inclusion of public interest into corporate decision-making, that is the core business of the company or firm, and the honouring of a triple bottom line: people, planet, profit.”
CSR is attacked from (at least) two sides: the Friedmanists argue that a corporation maximizes its benefit to society by maximizing returns to its shareholders. Others argue that most CSR initiatives are “greenwashing” — more about messaging than public good.
Large corporations are (rightly) the ones under the most public scrutiny, and the ones most concerned about how the public perceives them. But their scale makes fundamental change slow and painful. (It would be surprising if an organization could migrate from one to three bottom lines without fundamental change.) When CSR is a marketing department-driven ‘add on’ to existing initiatives, or when CSR messaging overstates or is ambiguous about the scale and rate and impact of change, it loses credibility.
Corporate Social Entrepreneur
Wikipedia: “…an employee of the firm who operates in a socially entrepreneurial manner; identifying opportunities for and/or championing socially responsible activity; in addition to helping the firm achieve its business targets. The CSE operates regardless of an organisational culture that is pre-disposed towards CSR. This is because the CSE is driven by their dominant collectivistic (concerned with the welfare of others) as opposed to their individualistic personal values. Consequently, the CSE does not necessarily have a formal socially responsible job role; nor do they necessarily have to be in a senior management position in order to progress their socially responsible agenda.” This term simply situates our existing understanding of a social entrepreneur into a pre-existing organization. This change of context is notable because the expectation of social entrepreneurs to create new models, structures and organizations to support their work of “wide-scale change” doesn’t fit as well in the context of an existing organization (especially a large one). A corporate social entrepreneur might still be aiming for “wide-scale change,” but has the additional constraint of managing this change (which might be incremental at first) in an organizational context.
Some use the term “social intrapreneur” to mean the same thing, but it’s no surprise that such an awkward term hasn’t gained much acceptance.
Wikipedia: “Social enterprises are non-profit organizations which apply capitalistic strategies to achieving philanthropic goals.”
Enterprising Non-Profits: “[Social enterprises are] business ventures operated by non-profits, whether they are societies, charities, or co-operatives. These businesses sell goods or provide services in the market for the purpose of creating a blended return on investment, both financial and social. Their profits are returned to the business or to a social purpose, rather than maximizing profits to shareholders.”
BC Centre for Social Enterprise (one of many definitions): “A social enterprise is an enterprise, owned at least in part by a non-profit organization, that is using entrepreneurial methods to accomplish social goals and providing its profits to its owner(s) for use in continuing their core missions.”
The ‘axes’ here are:
- the organization is or isn’t itself a non-profit. (what’s unclear here is if we might be discussing the ‘parent’ non-profit of a for-profit venture)
- the organization is wholly or partially owned by a non-profit.
- the organization produces a strictly financial, or blended value return.
Wikipedia: “A social venture is an undertaking by a firm or organization established by a social entrepreneur that seeks to provide systemic solutions to achieve a sustainable, social objective. Social ventures may be structured in many forms, including sole proprietors, for-profit and not-for-profit firms, non-governmental organizations, youth groups, community organizations, and more.”
MaRS: “‘Social ventures’ are both not-for-profit social enterprises and for-profit social-purpose businesses, since solutions to social problems are emerging in both sectors.” (see also Legally Incorporating your Social Venture) The term ‘social-purpose businesses’ isn’t widely used, but MaRS uses it to distinguish blended-value for-profit corporations from ‘social enterprises’ which it considers are always incorporated as not-for-profit. It makes sense that there’d be this kind of regionalism in terminology, because corporate legal structures vary from one jurisdiction to another.
While doing this research has been enlightening, it’s also been exhausting. I might’ve guessed that this would happen when I first read CSI’s definition of social innovation, which starts with this: “Definitions of social innovation abound and a casual observer can quickly become entangled in a debate over meaning and nuance. We’re not too hung up about it […]”
During the panel discussion that CSI’s Eli Malinsky moderated at YSEC’s Re:vision conference (and about which he blogged in a post entitled ‘What is Social Innovation? Umm…‘), I (finally?) had the realization that so many of the conversations, blog posts, articles, talks and panel discussions I’ve been absorbing lately are about the way in which we frame or categorize “making the world a better place,” and not about the work itself. And that beyond a certain point the terminology mostly just gets in the way; slowing down and confusing us. It’s one of those lessons, perhaps, that one needs to come to on one’s own. In any case, I’m there. Much as I’ve enjoyed and learned from them, the appeal of conferences on this subject suddenly wore off.
This post is bound to have an unsatisfying ending; I won’t fight it. Here are the unanswered questions I’m left with (without applying them to any specific term or domain):
- How specific is the mission?
- How systemic is the change?
- How novel/faddish/hip is the concept?
- Might there be a hidden intent in the coining of this term for the author to be staking a claim to it?
- Was the term created more for the purpose of conveying a new spirit to what might otherwise seem like an old concept?
To investigate further, I’d want to study how new terms emerge and get accepted. The evolution of language is outside of scope for this project.
[I was dismayed to discover quite late that Social Innovation Generation has a very similar primer on their website. In the interest of testing myself, I held back from reading it until finishing this post. It’s a great document, makes a couple of different conclusions from mine, and is far more comprehensive. It doesn’t so much attempt to describe the relationship between terms, which while I didn’t do directly, I certainly attempted to infer, partially because that was one of the confusions that drove me to do this in the first place. Their primer begins with a notice that it’s a living document, and inviting people to email further contributions. I, for the record, am making no such invitation.]