What the heck is a social entrepreneur?


I spent Monday at the “Social Entrepreneurship and New Leadership Development Consultation,” a mini conference about social entrepreneurship in the Jewish community that was run by JESNA, the Lipman Kanfer Institute and the UJC.

About 120 funders, federation system officials and those who are “social entrepreneurs” spent the day at Columbia University’s Kraft Center to talk essentially about how to pool the groundswell of innovative Jewish projects that have cropped up over the past decade.

But before I can actually get into how exactly these folks want to do that, I think it is important to define “social entrepreneurship” – something that a number of people, including my editors have asked since I started throwing the term around the office.

The problem with social entrepreneurship as an entity is that it is a lot like pornography – you kinda know it when you see it (i.e. Ashoka is a social entrepreneurial endeavor, the Joint and Jewish Agency are not) – and philanthropists all secretly want to indulge in them but are a little tepid about doing so publicly.

As for the standard definition of what is a socially entrepreneurial organization?

There are several working, rather than one.

For Ashoka, which is widely regarded as the world’s leading social entrepreneur organization, the definition starts as follows:

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.

Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps.

Then it continues for a whole Web page with more description and examples but no definitions.

I’ll go neo-high school and quote the e-encyclopedia. Wikipedia says:

A social entrepreneur is someone who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change. Whereas a business entrepreneur typically measures performance in profit and return, a social entrepreneur assesses success in terms of the impact s/he has on society. While social entrepreneurs often work through nonprofits and citizen groups, many work in the private and governmental sectors.


A social entrepreneur identifies and solves social problems on a large scale. Just as business entrepreneurs create and transform whole industries, social entrepreneurs act as the change agents for society, seizing opportunities others miss in order to improve systems, invent and disseminate new approaches and advance sustainable solutions that create social value.

Unlike traditional business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs primarily seek to generate “social value” rather than profits. And unlike the majority of non-profit organizations, their work is targeted not only towards immediate, small-scale effects, but sweeping, long-term change.

Monday’s keynote speaker, Dr. Paul C. Light, tried to articulate a definition. And given that Light is the Paulette Goddard Professor for Public Service at NYU and the author of “The Search for Social Entrepreneurship,” one would expect that he could.

His definition is pretty simple, and it starts with a definition of what it is not – it is not simply an innovative project. It is an effort to solve a social problem through a patter of change that involves trying to bring new perspective to address that change.

One could say that Jewish history is rife with social entrepreneurs – starting with Abraham. He saw a broken, fragmented world and recognized that everything was connected -– albeit through a single creator and God -– and that everything was thus dependent on and responsible for everyone (at least that is the Fundermentalist’s take).

And for Judaism – a religion of marginalized Hebrews – to survive for more than 3,000 years, it has consistently had to adapt to the world. Maimonides, who realized that Judaism had to be practical and scientific; the Baal Shem Tov, who created Chasidism, and Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the Reform movement in America – they all were social entrepreneurs.

Whatever social entrepreneurship really is, it seems that the Jewish world is certainly ripe, and in need of, more of it.

In coming posts, I’ll get into more of how the folks gathered Monday think that should happen.

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