the social enterprise: irony and alternative

Over the years SCOUT BANANA’s work has been termed “social entrepreneurship.” Unfortunately, the definition of the social enterprise has slowly become muddled and confused with other ideas. During a discussion last month a friend said that calling someone a social entrepreneur was like “cutting the balls off of a socialist.” He may not have been as far from the truth as I once thought. As the term becomes more prevalent within aid and development we must delve deeper into the history of social enterprise and decide what it really means for the work that we do.

Jeff Trexler wrote an excellent poston the history of social enterprise. He writes that a social enterprise is essentially “a venture with a social purpose.” As many wrongly believe the ideas of social enterprise did not come from capitalism or corporate business models at all.

“In socialist jurisprudence, social enterprise was a term designed to replace the capitalist notion of businesses dedicated to the pursuit of profit. The social enterprise generated revenue in excess of the costs of production, but profit-making was not the goal of socialist business–rather, its fundamental organizational purpose was to serve collective benefit. More over, in keeping with Marxist/Leninist ideology, the social enterprise was owned & controlled not by private shareholders–a hallmark of bourgeoise capitalism–but by workers themselves, from the workers immediately connected to the enterprise to society as a whole.”

Jeff continues to write that “social enterprise” migrated to Western minds and charities much the same way that “civil society” was reborn and co-opted. Meaning “citizen’s society,” the term was used to unite individuals against centralized government power. Now the term is best understood as a descriptor of anything “non-governmental.”

It seems that “social enterprise” has drifted just as far from its original conception. As a social venture that was meant to give power back to people and allow them ownership, much like a cooperative, “social enterprise” has best come to represent corporate philanthropy and cause marketing campaigns. Both of which are focused on turning profits and not helping people. Julia Moulden asks, “is making a difference only for the rich?” She easily gives examples that it is not, but is it? As far as the foreign aid/ international development arena it appears that social enterprise is geared towards engaging wealthy Western populations in feel good campaigns, like Product (RED), that are best defined as image marketing campaigns for corporations to try and look better as a way to bring in more customers. Lucy Bernholz has termed this business model “embedded giving” where “commerce is used to generate funds for a cause.” She writes:

“Embedded giving is just one more example of the blurring of sectors and roles between commerce, philanthropy, and public good. […] Maybe today’s teens and kids who have seen so much embedded giving will grow up to expect that every product and every service comes with a charitable affiliation.”

SCOUT BANANA’s work was first called “social entrepreneurship” in 2004 when I was selected as one of Netaid’s Global Action Awardee and was asked to contribute to a discussion on SocialEdge about young people and making a difference. Then, I was not too sure what the term meant or why it might be significant. More recently Spotlight Michigan has highlighted our work and called us a “social enterprise.” They select “innovative” companies and organizations in Michigan to feature on their website. Their criteria breaks down into three categories: creativity, risk-taking and adaptability. In the true spirit of a social enterprise we are an organization built for adaptation because we operate by members involvement and input. We have always been called creative for our fundraising tactics, use of yellow and bananas, and our ability to connect people. The risk-taking is another story. We never faced any risk in our venture to make a difference. If we failed the only people who would potentially suffer were those relying on our support to access basic health care. Alanna Shaikh wrote an excellent piece on how “global health is not about altruism.” While our actions may have been seen as risk-taking, we really work to create accountable, long-term relationships with communities developing their own sustainable solutions.

Personally I define social entrepreneurship within its original conception; a socialist structure (for social good) that is meant to give power and agency back to people as well as present an alternative to ineffective governments. Civil society still exists because honestly the government can’t do it all and often are not very good at meeting the needs of people. SCOUT BANANA sees the world’s problems as a simple equation of connecting communities; linking the necessary social capital (people and ideas) to social problems. We embrace the idea of “social enterprise” by focusing on presenting an alternative to government aid schemes and other big philanthropy and development programs that go for the quick-fix, band-aid solutions without being people-focused to produce long-term social change.

Is SCOUT BANANA a social enterprise? Yes and no, it depends how you define the term. If you are thinking of an organization cooperatively owned and operated by its members, focused on providing an alternative to what hasn’t worked, and supporting community-based solutions that do work – then, and only then are we definitely a “social enterprise.” In her Spotlight Michigan article I think Caitlin Blair put it best: “A society of entrepreneurs and innovators simply could not exist without social entrepreneurs because where business entrepreneurs typically work to enhance markets, social entrepreneurs completely transform the necessary infrastructure and attitudes of a society.”

See our features on Spotlight Michigan:
photo essay 

Written for the SCOUT BANANA blog.

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