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Three and a half reasons to stop calling yourself a social entrepreneur

By Sarah McKinney , written on May 31, 2013

From The News Desk

Last October I wrote an article for GOOD titled, “Why Social Ventures Are More Popular Than Ever,” summarizing six key trends driving continued growth. During my research for this piece, I became more than mildly obsessed with finding data to confirm my thesis -- that there has, indeed, been an increase in the number of social ventures and/or social entrepreneurs over the last several years.

I spent days conducting creative Google searches, I read dozens of articles that confidently spoke of growth without providing solid reference, I emailed the go-to organizations working within the social innovation space and, in a moment of sheer desperation, I even turned to Siri for help (no dice).

I was excited to hear back from a Program Coordinator at Skoll Foundation and an Executive Director at Case at Duke, but both said they were sorry and didn’t have the data I was looking for. I was in shock.

Having spent over a decade conducting market research, this lack of data to support such a widely accepted belief struck me as a missed opportunity. I ended up using a statistic from LinkedIn, showing a 41 percent annualized increase in “Social Ventures” within self-reported Skills & Experience.

After my article posted I continued to discuss my shock with my entrepreneurial friends, brainstorming ways we might be able to commission our own study as a way to demonstrate thought leadership while generating additional income to invest in our startups. A former colleague later alerted me to something called the Great Social Enterprise Census, which is attempting to collect self-reported data on a broad scale.

But as the months have passed my passion for measuring the growth in social ventures has faded, remaining focused on my company while continuing to write, and I’ve even stopped referring to myself a social entrepreneur. You should too, and here are 3 ½ reasons why:

1. It will become irrelevant.

Most, if not every, business will integrate social values into their mission statement in the near future – if not be desire, than by force. Forty-eight percent of S&P 500 companies already report on non-financial environmental and social performance indicators, and two-thirds of mid-sized companies are establishing or enhancing their corporate social responsibility programs. The majority of Americans now believe climate change is happening and that corporations should be doing more to address the issue. Eighty-four percent of consumers say greater visibility into social responsibility efforts increase their trust in a company. This is happening, people.

2. It’s confusing to those not already engaged.

Anyone that’s referred to him or herself as a social entrepreneur has most likely witnessed eyes glazing over and/or confused facial expressions. Take it from someone with an MBA in sustainability; anything that requires a second sentence to clarify what the hell you’re talking about indicates a communication problem. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the definitions of social ventures continue to blur, as non-profits integrate revenue streams and established companies integrate social and environmental values into their mission statements. Which brings us back to reason  No. 1.

3. Financial sustainability has to come first.

My company AMP can be most succinctly described as Yelp for sustainability resources -- we organize the best peer-reviewed links, media and documents for sustainability students, professionals and social entrepreneurs. Similar to DocStoc, we have a marketplace for content, where users can upload documents they’ve created, set a price, and retain eighty percent of every exchange. This business model requires both “sellers” interested in showcasing their contribution to the sustainability and giving back, and “buyers” seeking the best content to help them further social and environmental efforts from within their organizations.

We believe this business model will work, and result in dramatically reducing duplicated efforts at a time when progress is desperately needed. But it’s one of the key things we’ll be testing during the beta release of our site -- because if AMP isn’t able to financially sustain its operations, we won’t achieve our vision of enabling scalable impact. The money piece has to come first.

3 ½. You know you’re a good person.

I understand how tempting it is to tell people about the good work you’re doing -- you’re passionate about making a positive difference and changing the status quo so that “business as usual” includes a triple bottom line perspective (i.e., people + profit + planet).  But leading with this information can, from what I’ve observed, create unintentional resistance -- because it implies everyone else in the business sector isn’t doing work that promotes social good. Defensiveness packaged as devil's advocate arguments ensues, forcing you to spend the next 15 minutes trying to find common ground and demonstrate humility.

Saying you’re simply an “entrepreneur” will allow those interested in learning more about you to hear the “social” piece you’re so excited about, ensuring you focus your energy on those who are receptive, and continue creating a growing circle of support and inspiration in your life.