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Social Entrepreneurship: Still a Misunderstood Concept Among the Public

For over three decades, social entrepreneurship has taken on growing importance in society. It’s become an increasingly popular mechanism to address social needs such as homelessness, drug addiction, malaria, producing renewable energy, poverty, climate change and social exclusion, among many others. For example, D.Light provides affordable solar energy to everyone around the world, while Grameen Bank has loaned about USD 10 billion to the poor through microcredits. Yet, social entrepreneurship continues to be a misunderstood concept among the general public. At least, that’s what a recent research shows.

YouGov, the global opinion center, conducted an online survey in the UK at the end of 2011 and explored what consumers think about social enterprises. YouGov surveyed 2107 UK adults and discovered that only 33% of respondents could identify the definition of social enterprise, while 30% confessed to not knowing what the term means. Overall 64% of respondents agreed that social enterprise sounded like a good idea, but that they needed to know more and 47% agreed that they didn't really understood what a social enterprise was. More than a quarter (28%) agreed that being called a social enterprise is a marketing ploy.

Although the study is conducted in only one country and isn’t representative of the rest of the world, it brings up some important issues that can affect the future of the field. The success of social enterprises depends on attracting and retaining top-notch talent, establishing beneficial partnerships with existing and new ventures, gaining funding and presenting social entrepreneurship as a legitimate career choice. But how can social enterprises attract and retain outstanding talent that would otherwise work for established and prestigious ventures if most people don’t know what exactly a social enterprise is? How can social enterprises form partnerships and apply for funding when more than a quarter of the general public considers the term a “marketing ploy”? Among those 28% of respondents are bankers, business owners, analysts, high level corporate executives and consumers; people whose positive or negative perceptions, or lack of perceptions, can affect the success of individual social enterprises, as well as the success of the entire field.

The situation calls for collaboration between social enterprises, foundations, government commissions and agencies, consultants and the media. Working with the media to increase awareness of the concept, educate the public about it and brand it will be beneficial on a micro and on a macro level. Not only will such an approach help existing social enterprises, but it will also inspire and encourage others to join the field and increase the number of social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. Such an initiative would be very similar to the efforts of the Fair Trade movement in the 1980s to bring the movement and its products to the attention of the mainstream public.

Increasing the number of social enterprises is something that institutions like Ashoka, the Kauffman Foundation and the European Commission on Enterprise and Industry, among many others, have been focusing on for years. But a single institution or a venture can’t achieve this. It will take all parties involved to collaborate to create something that benefits the entire field, not just a few social enterprises. It will take all of us to create something sustainable.

Andreana Drencheva is an independent strategist who has worked across a variety of industries (higher education, research and development, health care and wellness, sports, technology and online publishing) for traditional non-for-profit and for-profit ventures, as well as for… [Read more about Andreana Drencheva]

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