What differentiates social entrepreneurs from just plain entrepreneurs is that they focus on business as a powerful vehicle for contributing to the Common Good. Social entrepreneurship is about doing good business well in a way that benefits are shared among all stakeholders.
Today the concept of the Common Good may seem antiquated or even a bit corny. But it is as relevant today as it was when the Founding Fathers of America embraced it as a basic virtue. The Common Good, as defined by Robert Reich in his most recent book entitled The Common Good (2018), is about inclusion; it’s about joining together to achieve common goals in benefit of all.
Our Founding Fathers understood that “the best way to preserve freedom was through people fiercely committed to it”. Although at America’s founding, the common good didn’t include African Americans or Native Americans, and women and the non-propertied poor couldn’t vote, the Founding Fathers nevertheless embraced a concern for the common good as the basic virtue that would protect against authoritarian rule.
The practice of this virtue is what Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville referred to as the “habits of the heart”, which emerged from America’s experience in self-government. These habits focused on putting public responsibility over selfish interest. But it was not, as Reich points out, mainly about generosity towards those in need. It was about giving others an equal chance to succeed by doing what John Winthrop, the first elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, referred to as the freedom to do that “which is good, just and honest”.
Social entrepreneurship is the rapt expression of that founding idea of the Common Good as a national virtue. It is today’s most powerful vehicle for addressing America’s, and the world’s, most pressing social, economic, environmental, geopolitical challenges.
In practice, social entrepreneurship focuses on pursuing business responsibly, based on a belief in America’s founding principles: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; equality, natural rights and consent of the governed; religious freedom, private property and the rule of law; constitutionalism, self-government and independence. These are the principles that define the Common Good that binds us together as Americans.
Social entrepreneurs “walk the talk” behind those principles, by focusing on what the British philosopher John Stuart Mill meant when he wrote in his autobiography that “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed…on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.” This is what Sally Osberg, President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, refers to as “getting beyond better” by driving change where it matters most for the Common Good.
That is the very nature of social entrepreneurship: the sum total of reflection + action + transformation of the status quo, which leads to an equilibrium change through new approaches to old and pernicious problems. The result tips society to a new and better state.
Social entrepreneurship may be the newest business buzz word for those looking for inspirational business approaches to disrupt the status quo of the anything-for-profits-and-growth ethos. But it should not be confused with the business of philanthropy or charity. It is neither.
The goal of social entrepreneurship is doing profitable business for good, in both senses of the word, for the common good and sustainably.