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Getting clear on social entrepreneurship to unleash change agents

Michigan Corps
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By Elizabeth Garlow, Executive Director of Michigan Corps
July 10, 2013

It's no secret that the social entrepreneur movement is characterized by confusing and often-contradictory definitions.

Last month, I participated in a summit of economic development leaders and entrepreneurs from around the country, who gathered to discuss the role of a growing movement of businesses in pursuit of meaningful social good alongside financial viability. The same topic kept creeping up: how do we define this movement? Do we need to define it? Who can define it?

Our attempts to define social entrepreneurship are often filled with jargon inaccessible to the very communities where cutting-edge innovation is likely to come from. We need to get clearer in describing social entrepreneurship, so as to invite greater grassroots participation from entrepreneurs and those who wish to champion their success.

The organization that I run, Michigan Corps, recently led the development of a statewide social entrepreneurship competition. I saw our Pure Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge as an opportunity to get clear and simple on the meaning of social entrepreneurship, so as to spark new collaboration and investment of resources in its favor.

We needed a definition that was inclusive and welcoming to a growing movement of social entrepreneurs, and clear for the competition's coaches and judges who can play an important supportive role, but may have been unfamiliar with the concept to begin with.

We developed a simple definition, married to a five-point checklist, to describe an excellent social entrepreneur without regard to tax status or a specific approach. You can read about it in a recently published article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Our team of organizers hosted trainings to help the over 250 entrepreneurs who registered refine their concepts. The defining characteristic we most often found ourselves helping applicants reflect on was this: the solution addresses systems, not just symptoms of the problem.

For me, this characteristic was the one that has most clearly distinguished a great entry to The Challenge. And it’s a tough one. It addresses changing institutions, culture, even public policy and that's a tall order. Most solutions to social problems only address symptoms, and do not engage in addressing the root causes of the problem.

Our team was inspired to see applicants to The Challenge who brought a systems-focused approach through partnership models or a focus on changing policy in their interest area.

Great social entrepreneurs are intent on scaling influence over traditional organizational growth. The more a social entrepreneur can partner with and influence others – individuals, institutions, communities – to adopt and champion their cause, the more widespread the effect on behavior change and system.

What we've learned in Michigan is that when we take the risk to be clear, simple, and welcoming in our definition of a social entrepreneur, we can unleash the power of an entire new generation of change agents - and those who play a vital role in supporting them.

You can read about our competition finalists and award winners here.

About Michigan Corps:
Michigan Corps empowers Michiganders everywhere to connect and collaborate on social innovation in communities across our state.

Toward this end, Michigan Corps has launched Kiva Detroit, the country's first citizen-to-citizen micro-lending initiative, and the Pure Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, the country's first statewide competition in social entrepreneurship.
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