Where is social work in the social entrepreneurship movement?
Article Type: Report
Subject: Social entrepreneurship (Analysis)
Social case work (Analysis)
Author: Berzin, Stephanie C.
Pub Date: 04/01/2012
Publication: Name: Social Work Publisher: Oxford University Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Oxford University Press ISSN: 0037-8046
Issue: Date: April, 2012 Source Volume: 57 Source Issue: 2
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 302403786
Full Text: Although the business and public policy communities have ignited a national movement toward embracing social entrepreneurship as a laudable enterprise and a critical piece in addressing social problems, social work remains notably absent from the discussion and definition of this field. Though the values and practices of social entrepreneurship are closely aligned with social work, social work scholars and institutions have been less at the forefront of this movement than have representatives of other disciphnes. The Skoll Foundation, a leading agent for developing and promoting social entrepreneurship, listed three exemplary social entrepreneurs in their description of the concept (the document, "Foundations of Social Entrepreneurship," has since the time of this writing been taken down; for general information, see http:// www.skollfoundation.org/). Among those listed is Jane Addams, founder of Hull House and one of the most influential figures in social work history. Yet social work has done little to align itself with the movement of social entrepreneurship. There remains an opportunity for the field of social work to avail itself of the resources and knowledge created by this movement and to infuse social work knowledge into the study of social entrepreneurship. Understanding the history and definition of social entrepreneurship helps to define potential roles and contributions for social work and provides an opportunity to explore their congruence and potential connections.


Consideration of the role of social work in the social entrepreneurship movement requires an understanding of the concept. Although there has been some debate about the definition of social entrepreneurship (Christie & Honig, 2006; Mair & Marti, 2006), common to all definitions is the goal of creating social value or mission rather than personal gain or financial wealth (Peredo & McLean, 2006). Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, a leading global organization that identifies and promotes social entrepreneurs, is generally credited with the term's origin. His famous statement embodies the concept: "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" (see http://usa.ashoka.org/social-entrepreneurs-are-not-content-just-givefish- or-teach-how-fish).

Scholars have argued over whether social entrepreneurship has specific ingredients, including particular responses or specific characteristics of the entrepreneur. Dees (1998) defined social entrepreneurship as the combination of social mission with business discipline, innovation, and determination to respond to social needs. Martin and Osberg (2007) described social entrepreneurship as a response to an opportunity to create an out-of-the box solution to a novel problem. They described three components: (1) identification of a stable but unjust equilibrium; (2) creation of a transformational social response; and (3) the result being a new, stable equilibrium that alleviates suffering of the identified group. Their definition clarifies that social service provision, creation of local programs, and social activism that creates change through indirect action are not included. Some scholars have suggested that social entrepreneurs have certain characteristics like a willingness to accept above-average risk, being unusually resourceful (Peredo & McLean, 2006), or having a strong ability to seize presented opportunities (Thompson, 2002).

In 2006, Light argued for a more inclusive definition. He defined social entrepreneurship as the effort of an individual, organization, network, or group of organizations to create large-scale, sustainable change by shifting an approach to solving social problems. He argued against the notion of a heroic, risk-taking individual, forwarding instead a concept that celebrates working together in novel ways to solve social problems. In The Search for Social Entrepreneurship, Light (2008) revisited some of those assumptions and used scholarly evidence to help refine his definition. He was leery that his inclusive 2006 definition might have allowed social entrepreneurship to be found almost everywhere. His newer definition supported multiple activities of social entrepreneurship but locates boundaries in the activities that define it. Social entrepreneurs are successful innovators, but they occur across personality types and entrepreneurial endeavors. Light (2008) provided evidence that smaller scale incremental change can lead to innovation. Entrepreneurial organizations focus on vision, commitment to change, ability to seize opportunities, strong leadership, and greater focus on transformation than on sustainability.

Light's (2009) recent writing suggests four assumptions about social entrepreneurs that limit the definition. First, he posited that social entrepreneurs are unique in their motivation, behavior, and insights, leading them to be deliberate, persistent, and optimistic in their mission to solve social problems. Second, though he continued to support a notion of incremental change, he found that entrepreneurs eventually move change into broader, large scale initiatives. His third assumption was that opportunities for innovation are supported in particular historical times. Finally, he suggested that entrepreneurial organizations are specifically built to make change, rather than change coming out of traditional organizations. These entrepreneurial entities reject organizational structures, are often focused on a single mission of change, and appeal to funders as a new transformative face of change. Light (2009) continued to maintain that entrepreneurship can be an individual or group-based endeavor and that traditional organizations can spur entrepreneurship from within.

Although these definitions leave us without conclusive explanations of what social entrepreneurship is, they incite thinking about the potential for transformation in how we approach social problems. Light (2008) argued for the importance of scholarly work that defines and tests social entrepreneurship for the purpose of providing practitioners with guidance on how to identify, support, and expand social entrepreneurial endeavors. Social work has a role to play in defining this field and supporting its growth as a way to approach society's problems.


The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession's focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living. (NASW, 2008, "Preamble")

This definition embodies a clear commitment and mission to address social problems. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on addressing contextual barriers and formulating visions of sustainable change. Elements of the profession show clear alignment with social entrepreneurial ideas and assumptions. Although Light (2009) clearly iterated the mission and motivation of the social entrepreneur as being socially driven, persistent, and optimistic, one could argue that these same traits are possessed by many social workers. Also, social work attempts to improve the well-being of individuals and society, clearly a transformative mission. These characteristics suggest potential links in mission and value between social work and social entrepreneurship, though it is also important to consider the mechanisms by which social change is accomplished.

As Light (2009) argued, social entrepreneurship is not created by incremental change, and Martin and Osberg (2007) suggested that social service provision, the creation of local programs, and social activism are not social entrepreneurship, so much of the work that social workers do may be outside this domain. Yet substantial subsets of the social work field do engage in direct activities that lead to transformational, equilibrium-changing innovation.

Consider three examples that illustrate the potential of social workers to engage in entrepreneurship and address social problems in a transformative way. Social worker David Betas, past director of the E1 Paso County, Colorado, Department of Human Services, transformed the agency to completely reenvision the link between welfare and child welfare (Hutson, 2003; Scott, 2003). Working in a traditional organization, he overhauled its structure, staffing, mission, and objectives, laying the groundwork for other states and localities to reconsider the links between poverty and child maltreatment. Social worker Michael Sherraden's work on asset building has created a mechanism to support saving and asset accumulation among low-income people in the United States (McKernan & Sherraden, 2008; Schreiner & Sherraden, 2007). He spurred the creation of individual development accounts (IDAs), a matched-savings program that supports low-income people in accumulating assets; IDA programs have been adopted federally and in over 40 states (see http://gwbweb.wustl.edu/Faculty/ FullTime/Pages/MichaelSherraden.aspx). Social worker Antonia Pantojoa founded both the National Puerto Rican Forum and the ASPIRA Association, transformational organizations that spurred a movement toward the promotion of self-sufficiency and higher aspirations for Puerto Rican and other Latino youths (ASPIRA Association, 2009). Although these exemplars exist outside the traditional structure of social entrepreneurship, they help to fortify the natural alignment between social entrepreneurship and social work.


Although some elements of social work fit within definitions of social entrepreneurship, values between the two fields align, and examples exist that demonstrate social work's ability to engage in entrepreneurship, the links between the fields are tenuous. Examining multiple avenues for collaboration, current linkages are weak and could be bolstered considerably.

A few MSW programs offer opportunities for students to learn about social entrepreneurship, as is the case with the George Warren Brown School of Social Work (at Washington University in St. Louis) course on social entrepreneurship (see http://gwbweb.wustl.edu/Admissions/ MSWProgram/Documents/MSW%20Course%20 Descriptions.pdf) and the New York University Silver School of Social Work opportunity for MSW students to apply for a fellowship in social entrepreneurship (see http://www.nyu.edu/reynolds/grad/); the majority, however, do not offer opportunities to explore social entrepreneurship explicitly. Considering social work research, a literature search in Social Work Abstracts yielded only three articles with the phrase "social entrepreneur" or "social entrepreneurship." Although the work of social workers may fit within the social entrepreneurial framework, the language of social entrepreneurship is mostly not being used or embedded in curriculums.

Conversely, business schools frequently embed social entrepreneurship in their curriculums, creating distinct concentrations and opportunities for students to engage in this field. Considering award recipients for work in social entrepreneurship from the leading organizations that support this work (that is, the Skoll Foundation, Civic Ventures, Ashoka, and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship), few have awarded any of their fellowships to social work professionals. In addition, a recent discussion among members of the Skoll Foundation-sponsored global online community Social Edge (a targeted network for social entrepreneurs to connect and share resources) was summarized under the title "Social Work: A Dirty Word?" (Cameron, 2010). This discussion illuminated many barriers and misconceptions to social work's role in the social entrepreneurship movement, Responders shared concerns that social workers enabled social problems, that there is a disconnect between people doing direct work and the visionary entrepreneurs carrying out transformative work, that the benefits of social work have not been adequately quantified, and that social work is allied too closely with bureaucracy and supports the status quo. Although this discussion raises questions about social work's role in this space, it highlights misconceptions about the field and the limited view of outside professionals regarding social work practice.

Congruence between social entrepreneurship and social work suggests a need to revisit the role of the social work field in promoting and developing this area and explore how to embed social entrepreneurial concepts into social work teaching. Social workers could benefit from broader exposure to these concepts and the ability to obtain funding through these sources. The social work profession could stand to learn from the work of current social entrepreneurs and their approaches to solving problems. Increasing course offerings in MSW programs, bolstering collaborations with business schools in this domain, engaging in public discourse through conference presentations and journal articles, and connecting to foundations that focus on social entrepreneurship could strengthen this collaboration. Models that could be adapted to traditional social service agencies could also spur innovation and change within existing structures.

The strengthened connection between these fields would also benefit the social entrepreneurship movement, as social workers have experience dealing with the problems and populations that social entrepreneurs are often drawn to. Engagement of the social work profession in dialogue with leaders from the business and public-policy communities could offer new perspectives and new approaches to solving problems. Social work students who share many of the values and the optimism of social entrepreneurs may be a natural source of inspiration for future social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurship has much to learn from the over 100 years of experience that social work brings in working in the domain of social problems and the populations that face them. Strengthening this link can support the mission of both fields and support the growth of social entrepreneurship as a potential strategy for solving social problems.

Original manuscript received June 10, 2010

Accepted June 24, 2010

Advance Access Publication August 8, 2012


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Stephanie C. Berzin, PhD, MSSW, is associate professor and chair, Children, Youth & Families concentration, Graduate School of Social Work, Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467; e-mail: stephanie. berzin@bc.edu.

doi: 10.1093/sw/sws004
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