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Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

What is social entrepreneurship?

Defining social entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurship refers to the practice of combining innovation, resourcefulness and opportunity to address critical social and environmental challenges. 

Social entrepreneurs focus on transforming systems and practices that are the root causes of poverty, marginalization, environmental deterioration and accompanying loss of human dignity.  In so doing, they may set up for-profit or not-for-profit organizations, and in either case, their primary objective is to create sustainable systems change.

The key concepts of social entrepreneurship are innovation, market orientation and systems change.

Who are Social Entrepreneurs? 

so•cial en•tre•pre•neur  n., 1. society’s change agent: pioneer of innovations that benefit humanity

Social entrepreneurs are drivers of change. Together with institutions, networks, and communities, social entrepreneurs create solutions that are efficient, sustainable, transparent, and have measurable impact.

A few examples of social entrepreneurs and their systems-changing solutions include:

  • Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank which spearheaded microfinance globally
  • Carlo Petrini’s “slow food movement” which currently has 100,000 member in 132 countries committed to rescuing cultural traditions and the preserving biodiversity
  • Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America which transforms educational opportunities for low income groups whilst recruiting top university students to work in America’s worst performing public schools.

Social entrepreneurs are united by their ability to:

  • Adopt a mission to create and sustain social value (not just commercial value)
  • Recognise and relentlessly pursue new opportunities to serve that mission
  • Engage in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning
  • Act boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand, and
  • Exhibit a heightened sense of accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created.

(From "The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship" Greg Dees, 1998)

What does not constitute social entrepreneurship?


  • A successful business man or woman who, upon retirement, has decided to help the less privileged in society and “give back”. To do so, s/he endows a foundation to support early childhood education and to set up hospitals in poor countries.  
  • Such a person is a philanthropist who has set up a charity.
  • Philanthropists are critically important in society – and many of them support social entrepreneurial activities.  But don’t confuse philanthropic largesse with social entrepreneurship. 


  • A passionate animal rights activist, who at an early age volunteered in an NGO to lobby the government to ban whale hunting. Subsequently, s/he worked to boycott garment companies using the fur of baby seals to make winter coats. As a young adult, s/he founded Bambi to raise money to lobby governments to protect the rights of laboratory animals.
  • This person an activist working to bring pressure on policy makers and the public to stop a specific practice. No alternative options are proposed.
  • We need activists – but they are not social entrepreneurs.

Companies with a Foundation

  • Foodmart is a global discount grocery & household products chain that has been rated by the International Better Business Bureau as one of the top companies to work for in the world. The World Health Organisation has designated Foodmart as a “Healthy Workplace” for worker safety and wellbeing. The company encourages its staff to engage in community activities and provides them with company time to do so.  The company established the Foodmart Foundation to support activities in maternal and child nutrition.
  • Foodmart is a socially responsible global business that has incorporated corporate citizenship and social responsibility into its core business practice.
  • We would love more companies like Foodmart – but their priority is to make money for their shareholders. It is not an example of social entrepreneurship practice, which subsumed value appropriation at the service of transforming social and environmental conditions.

Social entrepreneurship currently represents a fluid institutional space for dominant actors to shape and exploit.

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