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The stories and moments that keep us going

Social Entrepreneurship within Systems Design

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

While on the journey to understand and solve college homelessness, we have explored a lot of avenues. In a previous forum in February and online round-table in March on Social Entrepreneurship we discussed new how business entities could take on the challenge of addressing college homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. Yet, through the conversation a constant theme kept reemerging; the need to change policy at the state level. Social enterprises can offer a plethora of options to non-profits and entrepreneurs looking to address a human need, however an option to address policy and systems level challenges did not seem to be well suited for social enterprises. 

Why is that? Businesses are good at producing solutions. Solutions that can radically change the course of an industry. However, they are not always so keen on understanding or solving the root problem. As with some social programs, businesses are good at seeing the surface or symptom level issues, but without really understanding the depth of complexities woven into the challenge they are trying to solve. This fascination is also echoed in schools, businesses, non-profits, and foundations. When request is put out to develop something "innovative” the premise is always something new and shiny that has never been done before. 

A simple way to look at it is if someone is hungry then get them food, problem solved. For a new social venture, it might look something like an SMS enabled food app to align non-profits, food banks, and businesses to a person in need of food. Sounds cool right? These solutions can be practical and offer a good story to tell the investors and the public, but it fails to dive deeper. When we ask why the focus begins to widen and shift. Why is this person hungry? What challenges drove them to be hungry? What things in the past put them in the position they are in? How did this history effect previous generations? Why did these obstacles get introduce in the first place? As one unpeels a challenge, shared common issues arise in addition to some wild tangents. Something seemingly simple as addressing food insecurity can take you down an interesting intellectual rabbit hole. 

In a recent workshop for Grow Southeast, we explored food inequities with a couple of the community members looking to use urban agriculture to help address hunger and some of the economic challenges in their communities. We understood food inequity, not as an issue of hunger, but as layered and interwoven issue stemming from racism, intentional policies to stifle communities of culture, and lack of vessels and will to better understand our differences. Quite the challenge to defeat to say the least. So, what does one do? 

Daniela Papi Thornton explores this system change approach in a recent TED Talk. She elaborates on how the current conversation on social entrepreneurship has shifted from systems change to growing a social business. The goals of many supporting this movement revolve around growing the business and selling more stuff. All tangible items for making a successful enterprise but not necessarily solving the challenge.

“No one organization can grow to the size of the problems we face... Sometimes it means be deliberately not trying not to be unique in your field.”

Understanding the challenge plays a key part in this strategy before focusing on creating solutions. Businesses also carry an inherent risk of failure during their initial years. It is not to exclude social businesses or enterprises completely, but rather to see how they collectively fit into the system and contribute to the impact of others. 

Social Enterprises can be tangible vessels in addressing human challenges. By combining a social cause and the ability to generate revenue, a social enterprise can solve a problem many times over as compared to a non-profit, where money is often capped to a program and cannot always be recouped. However, they are not a silver bullet and alone they cannot solve a challenge. Systems change is complex, ambiguous, and multi-faceted. It requires more than just one approach. After understanding a challenge, a social business working collectively can help bring new solutions to the table that help all the players involved. As we prepare for an online forum on this topic, we look forward to exploring this curiosity more in depth.

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