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Is the Social Entrepreneur a New Type of Leader?

by Lynn Barendsen and Howard Gardner

Institute, No.34, Fall 2004

Social entrepreneur is a new term, much in the news these days. Social entrepreneurs are individuals who approach a social problem with entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen. Whereas business entrepreneurs create businesses, social entrepreneurs create change. But is social entrepreneurship actually something new? What, if anything, distinguishes the social entrepreneur from other workers?

To find out, we carried out a careful study of individuals who conform to our conception of social entrepreneurs. They have formed a wide array of organizations: one lends money to small businesses in South America, a second is dedicated to urban education, a third started a for-profit Web development company that hires extensively in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. We chose two other groups with whom to compare them: a group of business entrepreneurs (to control for entrepreneurial talent and dedication) and a group of young service professionals working in the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Program (to control for a commitment to social missions). Individuals were selected on the basis of recommendations of experts in the three fields. We discovered that social entrepreneurs are more like the Schweitzer service professionals, but they act more like business entrepreneurs.

History of Social Entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurship is not a new phenomenon. While the name and description may be relatively new, individuals who adopt entrepreneurial strategies to tackle social issues are not. William Lloyd Garrison founded the Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Publisher of the first anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator, Garrison campaigned tirelessly for abolition throughout his lifetime. Jane Addams, social worker and reformist, founded the social settlement Hull House in Chicago in 1889. Hull House provided a welfare center for the neighborhood poor and offered a new model that was later replicated throughout the nation. Social histories are filled with many examples, both in the United States and abroad.

Only in recent years have these changemakers become known as social entrepreneurs. The emergence of social entrepreneurship as a recognizable field is most likely due to a variety of factors, including current dissatisfaction with the pace and management of standard charities and foundations. We might point as well to the emergence of funding for social entrepreneurial ventures.

Certainly one of the reasons for this recognition and movement is William Drayton. Drayton, a MacArthur Fellow, is often credited with introducing the term social entrepreneur. In 1980, Drayton founded Ashoka in the belief that social entrepreneurs have the greatest potential for solving social problems. Ashoka is one of the very first ventures designed explicitly to fund social entrepreneurs. Its purpose was and remains to empower social entrepreneurs with financial resources and a professional network within which they are able to disseminate ideas and solutions.

Background and Early Life

Social entrepreneurs are unusual in a number of ways. Like many of us, social entrepreneurs have deeply rooted beliefs, and like many of us, these beliefs are formed early. Social entrepreneurs are exceptional, however, in what they believe and in how these beliefs originate.

Several social entrepreneurs experienced some kind of trauma early in life. One person's mother committed suicide after a lengthy depression. Others were the children of divorce. One individual's father uprooted his family and moved from a "pristine" campus environment to a housing project. The headmaster at a prestigious prep school, he decided to give up his career to become a volunteer and an activist for the disadvantaged.

These traumatic events fill in our picture of social entrepreneurs as individuals and help explain how their beliefs develop. Priorities suddenly become clear when life seems short or when one faces a stark choice. Under such circumstances, a calling may be discovered. One individual, the victim of violence at a very early age, describes his reaction as follows:

"And then as I mentioned, just some of my own experiences with violence growing up, and without going into details, just not feeling safe for significant parts of my life to the point where I wasn't sure if I wanted to be alive. So just this real sense of helplessness and anger at a fairly young age, and that is really interesting. I was ten, and had really decided that life just wasn't so great. So I was sitting there contemplating not living anymore, and I remember sitting there and thinking that life is like this big equation and that for everything bad that happens on this side, something good is going to happen on this other side and I wasn't going to check out until I got to the other side of the equation. And, this again, I was in fourth grade so I must have been nine or ten. This really strong feeling, not of entitlement because I didn't feel like someone else owed me something, but it really turned into the sense of righteous anger that this isn't okay, that this is not my fault, and that things have to be different because it is wrong."

All too often, the victims of violence eventually become perpetrators themselves. According to the social entrepreneur just quoted, a very committed and sensitive mentor kept him from following this more typical route. It is also clear from this passage that, in spite of his trauma, he maintained a belief that good existed in the world and he had an early determination to find it.

Of those social entrepreneurs who do not experience extreme trauma, several describe some kind of deeply transformative experience. These experiences include living abroad and gaining perspective, combating depression, alcohol, or drug use, or working with troubled youth. One social entrepreneur was changed during his time as a camp counselor. He asked a young camper about a half-moon-shaped scar on his shoulder. In matter-of-fact tones, the child explained that he was hurt when his mother was beating his brother with an extension cord. The counselor describes himself as permanently changed by this encounter.

About half of the social entrepreneurs and half of the Schweitzer fellows had a traumatic or deeply transformative experience at an early age. Schweitzer fellows either lost someone close to them early in life or grew up in a troubled family environment. This is not true of business entrepreneurs. Although business entrepreneurs talk about transformative experiences, these experiences are usually very different in nature from those the other two groups describe. Some talk about the experience of starting and building a company, and one mentions the intellectual "epiphany" of attending MIT.

Many of the social entrepreneurs were involved with social issues at an early age. Several had role models or parents who were politically active. One young social entrepreneur grew up in the labor movement, another describes himself as the son of "broke, biracial lesbians." Other social entrepreneurs were involved in groups such as Amnesty International, the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Big Brother, or other local groups. One started an organization in his school to help students with disabilities.

Once again, the social entrepreneurs resemble the other caring professionals. Most of the Schweitzer fellows describe early participation in some kind of service work. These include volunteering at hospitals, visiting nursing homes regularly, or helping out at homeless shelters. By contrast, fewer than half of the business entrepreneurs mention early evidence of their entrepreneurial tendencies. A few started businesses in high school. One collected golf balls and then sold them at the local golf course. Two had parents who were themselves entrepreneurs. But again, the nature of this early involvement is different.


Social entrepreneurs are energetic, persistent, and usually confident, with an ability to inspire others to join them in their work. Typically they feel responsible to a cause or a mission. Social entrepreneurs are usually quite pragmatic, able to describe their business plans down to the small details. If they do not enjoy practical planning, they are able to recognize this in themselves and hire others to handle these tasks. Social entrepreneurs are also very independent. This does not mean that they are loners, or that they see themselves as operating independent of market forces. In fact, they work with a clear understanding how their particular goals fit into a larger framework.

But there is no one type of social entrepreneur. Some are truly charismatic speakers, full of energy, polished, well dressed, and at home in the boardroom. Others are more soft-spoken and quietly persistent, describing their work in pragmatic, matter-of-fact tones; it is the scope of their work, the deeds themselves, that speak most eloquently. Some entrepreneurs consider politics as a possible future career. If they are unable to achieve their goals through current work, they are willing to consider entering the political arena in order to effect greater change.

Several social entrepreneurs we interviewed specifically mention feeling isolated or never fitting in. One was born with a bone condition that caused his legs to be much shorter than they should be. He could not play sports as a child, which made him feel "different." Feeling isolated does not always mean, however, that social entrepreneurs felt excluded in school; in fact, most of them were popular growing up and often leaders in their schools. They describe a sense of isolation because they are working on unusual issues or working with marginalized groups.

Some social entrepreneurs still feel like outsiders. One describes the difficulties he has had since graduating from college and starting his organization. He realizes that, throughout his lifetime, he has felt isolated: "That is a pretty consistent theme of not feeling like I had a peer group. High school and college were similar in that I had a lot of people who respected me but didn't understand me." Some social entrepreneurs feel isolated because the work they do is so unusual. The organizations they form are typically breaking new ground.

For many social entrepreneurs, feeling like an outsider begins in childhood and helps to inspire or explain why they identify with a particular cause. As the organization is established and work begins, that feeling of isolation often increases. There are few if any peers to consult and not many understand the work being attempted.

Several Schweitzer fellows also saw themselves as outsiders during childhood. Some identify themselves as marginalized because they are immigrants, racial minorities, homosexual, or poor. Business entrepreneurs also see

Priorities become clear when life seems short.
themselves as outside the norm: however, outsider takes on a different sensibility in this group. They distinguish themselves from "regular" businesspeople and from peers who have chosen professions with more directed paths (typical MBA recipients, lawyers, doctors). According to one business entrepreneur, business skills can be learned, whereas the entrepreneurial mindset cannot. Once again, social entrepreneurs are similar to the Schweitzer fellows in that they feel like outsiders. -Their actions are similar to business entrepreneurs in that they have chosen nontraditional paths in their work.


We have argued that unusual events help shape the social entrepreneur. Their beliefs are sometimes inspired by trauma, sometimes by early activism. The beliefs themselves are also unusual.

In a number of studies of young professionals in different domains, ranging from journalism to theater, we have found that religion is rarely invoked. Social entrepreneurs are very different. With one exception all the social entrepreneurs describe themselves as spiritual or religious. Indeed, one social entrepreneur plans to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Some social entrepreneurs' beliefs stem directly from spiritual or religious upbringing. One refers to the Judaic ideal of tikkun olam, or the "repair of the world." According to this person, repairing the world is what we're here for. Another social entrepreneur, who describes himself as "spiritual" but not formally following any religion, describes his beliefs in these terms: "I believe that . . . we all come from a higher power and that, while even though society is very segmented, that there's a responsibility to reach out to those pockets of society that are less served."

Somewhat surprisingly this religious orientation also turned up in both the caring and business professions. A majority of both Schweitzer fellows and business entrepreneurs say that religious or spiritual beliefs are important to them. The caring professionals are often inspired and sustained by their beliefs. The business entrepreneurs are less easy to explain. Some say they actively follow their faith and believe that a greater power has a plan in mind.

Social entrepreneurs not only believe that they should create change, they believe as well that they are able to make this change happen. Maybe this faith is a prerequisite to survival in the caring professions, because the Schweitzer fellows say much the same thing. Both groups believe in human potential, or the possibility of change. As one social entrepreneur explains: "I still have hope in the basic human spirit of folks. Of folks who, when there is something wrong, or something that is unjust or--people want to do something to change it, and they do want to make it better. . . . I also believe that we all have, each and every one of us has, amazing talents, so sometimes the vehicles are not there for them to come forth."


Like most professionals, social entrepreneurs face many challenges. But social entrepreneurs typically see possibility rather than problems. (For a brief look at how social entrepreneurs confront challenges, see the sidebar.) With respect to ethical issues, in particular, there is quite a difference between Schweitzer fellows and social entrepreneurs. Schweitzer fellows wonder about the wisdom of passing condoms out to high school students. They worry about counseling people as budding medical professionals, questioning their own level of expertise. Although social entrepreneurs consider parallel issues, they do not typically mention them as challenges. Instead, much like their counterparts in business, their primary concerns involve challenges to running their organizations. The organizations are then able to grapple with and address larger ethical issues. So although social entrepreneurs see the same issues that Schweitzer fellows see, they tackle them in a manner reminiscent of business entrepreneurs.

For some social entrepreneurs, it becomes difficult to differentiate between professional and personal goals. Questions of balance between work and life become moot as the lines between the two blur. Discussions of this

There is no one type of social entrepreneur.
particular challenge again demonstrate that social entrepreneurship is a combination of entrepreneurship and the caring professions. Business entrepreneurs are very personally involved in their professions; their companies are their babies. Schweitzer fellows become personally attached to the individuals they serve. Social entrepreneurs feel both of these pulls.

Although social entrepreneurs face other obstacles, the financial pressures involved in keeping their organizations running are their greatest challenge. Most social entrepreneurs depend on the financial assistance of individuals and on private and government foundations to fulfill the needs of their organizations. While social entrepreneurs express excitement about their work and passion for the various causes they represent, many describe the fundraising process as restrictive and frustrating.

Negotiating the Ethical Fault Line

Although the social entrepreneurs we studied are exceptional in many ways, even they occasionally cut ethical corners. Because of financial pressures, one social entrepreneur reports "spinning" the truth in a way that funders might find attractive. Another refers to "mission creep," or what happens when an entrepreneur revises the goals of a venture to satisfy a funder's expectations. One social entrepreneur raised $20,000 on the promise of a challenge grant. The initial funder later withdrew her promise and the entrepreneur failed to return the $20,000.

There are also examples of social entrepreneurs who face these tensions, grapple with their principles, and make

Social entrepreneurs are willing to act on their obligations.
choices that are more in line with the beliefs and values they espouse. Unfortunately, however, sometimes values and standards are sacrificed in the name of organizational growth and "larger purpose." Those that do cross ethical lines--and in our sample these are not a majority--may believe they are doing so as a form of civil disobedience, breaking a law to support a higher ideal.

To be sure, as we have confirmed in other studies, other young professionals face similar challenges. Young journalists find the change from high school or college journalism to professional journalism particularly difficult. With little or no mentorship, they have little choice in assignment and are often expected to follow either the most mundane (local court hearings) or the least desirable stories (following up on tragic events). Many describe circumstances under which they are willing to sacrifice honesty early on in order to further their careers. Unlike journalists and social entrepreneurs, scientists have a clear, prescribed apprenticeship process. As they negotiate their way through the various hoops necessary to fulfill the requirement of Ph.D., postdoctoral, and professional research, they also face ethical choices. Should they choose research that will serve a greater good or be financially rewarding?

Professionals all develop tools to tackle these various challenges, and social entrepreneurs are no exception. They organize and delegate and assess their work much as other professionals do. In particular, their process resembles that of business entrepreneurs. In two methods, however, they are unusual. First, they have the comfort of their convictions. Sometimes, less comfortably, they feel they have no choice but to continue in their work:

"As a founder, you feel so invested that it is not a job that you can just quit. I really couldn't just quit and walk

Business skills can be learned, whereas the entrepreneurial mindset cannot.
away and say, 'Well I did my best, and whatever happens, happens.' I don't have that luxury, and there are probably many days where if I did, I would have. But it's a situation where you've got an extraordinary burden on your shoulders that you just can't turn away from under any circumstances."

Second, they have the ability to see that something positive, such as a commitment to a cause or working with an underserved population, can emerge from a painful situation. They often learn this lesson in childhood and apply it as adults.

A New Leader?

Social entrepreneurs are not new, but they are unusual: in terms of their compelling personal histories, their distinctive profile of beliefs, and their impressive accomplishments in the face of odds. What to make of the

Social entrepreneurs see possibility rather than problems.
recent prominence of the social entrepreneur? On one hand, social entrepreneurs are finally receiving the accolades they deserve. On the other, they are taking on issues and populations that governments either can't or won't tackle. Their example is impressive, indeed inspiring. But to the extent that they are truly inspiring, they should inspire others to join in their pursuits, if not as leaders, then at least as strong supporters. The rest of society shouldn't rely on a new species of independent contractor to address concerns brushed aside by others.

Three Strategies Social Entrepreneurs Use

Three strategic approaches help social entrepreneurs in their work: reframing challenges, adhering to a sense of obligation, and discerning measures of success.

Reframing Challenges

Some social entrepreneurs have the ability to see that something positive, such as a commitment to a cause or to working with an underserved population, can emerge from a painful or tragic situation. Those who have experienced trauma--social entrepreneurs and Schweitzer fellows--demonstrate an ability to reframe these challenges into opportunities for growth.

Sense of Obligation

Individuals we interviewed in all three groups express a strong sense of obligation to their work and to the people it affects. Schweitzer fellows feel responsible to the communities or causes they serve; business entrepreneurs speak about responsibilities to investors and employees. Social entrepreneurs feel all these obligations, and in some cases this leads to the feeling that they have no alternative but to continue their work. It is important to recognize, however, that although individuals may say they have "no choice" but to continue in their work, they of course choose to do so. Because of their deep convictions, these individuals are willing to respond to and act on their obligations.

Measuring Success

Social entrepreneurs regularly evaluate their work. Many describe standards by which they measure success. In assessing the value of their work, social entrepreneurs feel the challenges of the other caring professions and face these challenges with businesslike organization and methods. Measuring the impact on a particular population or on behalf of a particular cause is not always easy, and the social entrepreneurs share this challenge with the Schweitzer fellows. For-profit social entrepreneurs face this challenge in a very businesslike manner, by looking at their financial profits. Other, nonprofit social entrepreneurs create clear programmatic methods of assessment that are very much like business plans.

Copyright © 2004 by Lynn Barendsen and Howard Gardner. Reprinted with permission from Leader to Leader, a publication of the Leader to Leader Institute and Jossey-Bass.

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Barendsen, Lynn and Gardner, Howard. "Is the Social Entrepreneur a New Type of Leader?" Leader to Leader. 34 (Fall 2004)43-50.

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Issue No. 34
Fall 2004



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