Is social entrepreneurship cannibalizing civic engagement?

Without making a deliberate effort to see beyond the role of “entrepreneur” and “enterprise,” do we lose sight of incredible opportunities to build strong communities, engaged constituencies, and networks of change makers that don’t have a profit motive or a revenue objective?

This Fall I will be teaching a cohort of undergraduate and MBA students about social enterprises and social entrepreneurship. If there is one key lesson I hope to convey, it is that entrepreneurship is less a role than a frame of mind.

Entrepreneurial thinking is as valuable outside business—even outside formal organizations.

There are many skills to be acquired while learning to be an entrepreneur. There are the ‘hard skills,’ at the core of business schools’ curricula, including accounting, marketing, business model development, and other management disciplines. Then there are the much-lauded ‘soft skills’ of leadership, creativity, critical thinking, and more. What’s easily forgotten (or ignored) is that there are many ways to apply these ‘entrepreneurial skills’ in situations that are not enterprises or even formal organizations.

You wouldn’t know that from the communications and approaches of business schools or others that promote social entrepreneurship. And yet many of those other venues can be far more impactful than business.

If “making an impact” is what you’re after—a long-term, large scale systemic improvement in human and/or ecosystem well-being—social entrepreneurship is still an option. We are deeply impressed by many of the social enterprises with which we’ve worked. But it’s important to see ‘the whole chessboard’—to survey the myriad approaches to solving the challenges we face. When investors, consultants, and foundations are lined up with money to give to emerging ‘social startups,’ it’s all too tempting to make yourself into a nail for their hammer. Instead, take a step back, and ask yourself….

Is a new social enterprise the best approach to realizing change on a complex social problem?

Maybe we need passionate advocates who can navigate the legal system. Maybe we need childcare models that that enable the participation of marginalized people at cultural and community events. Maybe we need people to petition their elected officials. Maybe the things we need are simply not inherently profitable activities…. Maybe a business model isn’t conducive to bringing about ‘the change we seek.’

The problem with the laissez-faire economics and austerity budgets of modern neoliberal governments is that the promised social benefits of the unfettered free market never seem to materialize. All those dollars have been ‘clawed back’ from funding for social services, and put into tax cuts. It’s a bargain that often just doesn’t pay off.

Does social entrepreneurship commodify civic engagement?

Social entrepreneurship draws passionate, creative people out of volunteer roles in community and civic movements and directs their energy into building businesses, on the premise that a ‘movement’ of social entrepreneurs will work like ‘the invisible hand of the market’ to create positive systemic changes. The entrepreneurs get a big, validating experience of feeling like they’re working hard and building something valuable, but systemic, long-term impacts appear anecdotal at best.

Do social enterprises too readily imitate their larger cousins, making the same mistakes, but at a smaller scale?

While the popular narrative of social entrepreneurship is that (in the ideal), businesses adopt social missions ‘as part of their DNA’ and seek novel ways to deliver social goods to underserved populations, the sector may be serving to commodify the experience of civic engagement. Social entrepreneurship presents as an easy choice: should you labour in obscurity for a nonprofit that has been doing the same volunteer-run programs for decades, or sign up into an incubator program where you’re surrounded by peers and expert mentors where you feel like you’re a superhero? The message, sometimes insinuated, sometimes blatant, is that if you’re not making change and making money, you’re a rube, or you’re wasting your time. This phenomenon, sometimes dubbed “conscious capitalism,” might instead be dubbed “clean-conscience capitalism”—pouring your best self into a social impact start-up allows you to say “I’m doing my part,” at the expense of offloading responsibility for large-scale, necessary social infrastructure to… well… others…. The people who aren’t hip enough to be at the incubator, perhaps….

Can we expect enterprises to be just, sustainable, and innovative, simply because they’re enterprises? Or should our focus be on a mindset of civic engagement?

In the early 2000s I left a career in nonprofits to do an MBA and do sustainability and social impact consulting work in the private sector, because I had heard, time and again, that it was only private companies, with their incredible collective accumulation of wealth and power, combined with their capacity for flexibility and innovation, that could bring about change on the scale required to address intractable social problems like poverty, social justice, or environmental degradation. What I have found, 15 years on, is that a staggering overemphasis on entrepreneurialism has invaded our shared understanding of what it means to ‘make an impact’ in our lives and work, and it is a thin re-packaging of the liberal ideal of rugged individualism that comes with all the same baggage of bankrupt neoliberal economics.

I encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to take pause and reflect on what alternatives there may be to starting a business that will still allow them to be the person the world needs right now.


Garth Yule is a Senior Consultant in Junxion’s Vancouver office. He supports clients in for-profit, non-profit, and blended models, supporting efforts to shift entrenched systems and solve complex societal problems.

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