Community Engagement and Social Entrepreneurship: A Bigger Umbrella

February 3, 2016

If we imagine all the ways our campuses can engage with the larger community, we can think of a pretty large umbrella. It may include service-learning, community-based research, problem-based learning, civic work and others. Recently, social entrepreneurship has been an increasingly important presence on campuses. Ashoka U, the higher education arm of Ashoka, a four-decade old incubator for social entrepreneurs recently found social entrepreneurship courses and programs in over two hundred campuses. Articles about social entrepreneurs have appeared in major media outlets. Fixes, a series co-written by David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg for the New York Times, features articles on social solutions that work. Both are part of a movement called Solutions Journalism, that aims to foster a public discussion about how social entrepreneurs are addressing key social problems. There is considerable interest in social entrepreneurship by students. Social entrepreneurship resonates the idea of the creative founder and with the premise that existing systems are broken (nonprofit and the government) and that new approaches are needed for new conditions. Thirty campuses are designated Changemaker Campuses which means that social entrepreneurship education—courses, minors and certificates, incubators, grants, speaker series—has an important place on campus. What exactly is social entrepreneurship and what does it mean for service learning and civic engagement?

Like service-learning, social entrepreneurship comes in many flavors. Dees and Anderson make important distinctions between the social enterprise and the social innovation schools of social entrepreneurship. The first school focuses on income-generation, gathering resources, often market-based, to support social mission for nonprofits. Toms Shoes is a typical example. Consumers buy a pair of shoes and a second pair is donated to a poor child. Enterprises that run businesses like bakeries, restaurants and catering businesses employing low-skill individuals and directing profits to social mission are other examples. A homeless shelter and soup kitchen may run a bakery or catering business to both train hard-to-employ individuals and generate funds to support key social aims. After years of failing to convince local businesses to hire ex-felons, a nonprofit may establish a car wash or a cleaning business. A European entrepreneur has created a software business that hires people on the autism spectrum disorder for coding and testing tasks that require attention to detail and focus.

The social innovation school takes a broader view. It is institutionally and organizationally agnostic. What this means is that social innovation will take whatever social change strategy works best. If that means the civil sector, that is fine; if the market is a better strategy, that is fine; and if the solution requires changes in the public sector—laws, regulations, and so on—that strategy will be used. It is somewhat a misinterpretation to assign all social entrepreneurs to the first school, as if all believed that markets were the only solution to problems. Those who have been in the social entrepreneurship field for a while recognize that social transformative requires a set of strategies, not just social entrepreneurship. Paraphrasing the philosophy that underlies Ashoka, social entrepreneurs don’t just give a man a fish or teach a man to fish; the social entrepreneur may transform the fishing industry by making markets fairer to small fishermen and by working with local populations and community leaders to prevent overfishing. Microlending is often cited as an example here, as is KIVA, the organization that links lenders of small amounts of money to farmers, store owners and others around the planet. To date, KIVA has loaned more than $720 million dollars collected from over one million dollars, all over the world with a repayment rate of over 98%. The fair trade movement is also changing markets and relying on educated consumers to…Internationally, Ashoka’s social entrepreneurs have created and strengthened civic institutions, advocated for human rights, developed low-cost schools, and many more. This is important because in the U.S., we typically suggest that social entrepreneurship has a smaller number of tools in its social change toolbox than in fact in the case.

There is no question but that these are important movements. How do we educate students not just to volunteer, but to solve problems in ways that honor what we may call principles of engagement. As social entrepreneurship programs develop on campuses, we see courses and programs developing in business schools. A recent survey by Ashoka U found this to be the case although recently social entrepreneurship courses are in other departments and programs. Some campuses are embracing social entrepreneurship under the banner of social innovation. The broadest view of social entrepreneurship, like the broadest view of service-learning, would suggest that not just business faculty, but political scientists, sociologists, communications, historians, public policy scholars and others across the campus are good candidates for this work. And, if we broaden this even further to consider the skills, knowledge and dispositions we may need for 21ST century citizenship, we can stretch our definitions of community engagement to civic work, philanthropy, advocacy, and community-focused research. Minnesota Campus Compact’s Social Change Wheel, the Haas Center’s Public Service Pathways, Ashoka U’s Impact Spectrum and the Community Engagement Toolbox, which I have developed, offer broadening perspectives as we reconsider our work. Paul Light’s conception that social change requires four drivers, including social entrepreneurship, social safekeeping, social advocacy and social exploration reminds us that our work in the community should be considered a small piece in a much larger movement. As he writes, “Colleges and universities acts as gatekeepers into the world of social change and play a critical role in shaping student attitudes about engagement of all kinds.” His last phrase here is key. What sorts of engagement are we imagining for students in the future? What sorts of knowledge, skills and orientations best empower them to make their way in a complex world?


Sandra Enos, PhD, serves as Associate Professor of Sociology at Bryant University in Rhode Island.  She joined academia fifteen years ago after a career in public and community service.  She earned her B.A. in sociology from Rhode Island, a Master’s Degree from Brown University and a doctorate from the University of Connecticut.  Enos new book, Service-Learning and Social Entrepreneurship in Higher Education: A Pedagogy of Social Change, is available now.

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