What is Social Entrepreneurship?

Social entrepreneurship is, at its most basic level, doing business for a social cause. It might also be referred to as altruistic entrepreneurship.

Social entrepreneurs combine commerce and social issues in a way that improves the lives of people connected to the cause. They don’t measure their success in terms of profit alone – success to social entrepreneurs means that they have improved the world, however they define that.

Beyond that, however, there are differing opinions about what constitutes social entrepreneurship. Some believe the definition applies only to businesses that make money and work toward improving a designated problem by selling something to consumers. Others say business owners who work to solve a social problem using grant or government money are also social entrepreneurs.

In the “earned income” model – where the social entrepreneur makes money by selling something – the company’s customers know that their purchase will help support a stated cause, whether it’s providing soap to children in need so hand washing can protect them from diseases or selling whistles to help promote peace in the Congo.

People are often attracted to businesses that use a social entrepreneurship model because they’re helping to solve a social problem when they spend money on something they need or want.

Social Entrepreneurship Examples

Some contemporary well-known and lesser-known social entrepreneurs include:

TOMS: When the company was founded, it applied its “one for one” concept to shoes. For every pair of TOMS shoes purchased, the company donated a pair to a needy child. The company has since expanded the one for one concept to eyewear, coffee, and tote bags.
Grameen Bank: Founder Muhammad Yunus provides micro-loans to those in need to help them develop financial self-sufficiency. Yunus received a Nobel Prize for his work in 2006.
Badala.org: Founded by Joelle McNamara while she was still in high school, Badala.org is an e-commerce site that creates jobs for African women by selling the products they make. Products range from jewelry to wooden kitchen utensils.


According to the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurs share several characteristics.

Achieve large scale social change.
Focus on the social or ecological change they want to make while earning money to support the change.
Innovate when looking for a solution to a social problem.
Use feedback to adapt and refine.
While popularized by Gen X, social entrepreneurs have long existed in history. 19th-century innovators Florence Nightingale and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted are considered social entrepreneurs.