NOTE: I collaborated with social entrepreneurship dynamos (and colleagues from my time working at Ashoka Changemakers) Alexa Clay and Olivia Khalili on the article below. It was published today in The Guardian.
A few days ago we learned that Salesforce is calling itself a social enterprise – and moreover referring to its clients as such. Salesforce advertises its utility as “CRM software and cloud computing for the social enterprise”. For those not familiar with Salesforce count yourself lucky. You have a far more interesting job than us mere mortals dependent on database and contact management systems.
But as women working in the social entrepreneurship field, the flagrant co-option of one of our most precious labels was disconcerting. On the one hand, it makes total sense. Suggesting you are a social entrepreneur or work for a social enterprise often sounds a bit silly to first-time listeners. “Is that a fancy way of saying you’re a party planner?” Or “Oh, so you’re on Facebook a lot?” are popular responses to the introduction of our profession.
It makes sense. In the popular imagination – and for many – a social enterprise is strictly a business that is network heavy and likely leverages social media and social networking tools. But to us, and to many others, social enterprise is defined not by tweeting ability, but by a very specific mission-driven objective. A social enterprise is a for-profit or non-profit organisation that looks to address societal issues – that chooses to “do good” rather than remain complacent.
It is alarming then to learn that we are facing linguistic competition. For when a term is too inclusive and flexible, when it stands for too much, it ends up meaning little. Yet worse than a tepid label is the lost followers and supporters of what the label stands for. Without a name that people understand and can act on, how will they begin to self-identify as agents of social enterprise – and what will they call their work when they do?
Perhaps we should retire the word social? Create a new branding around another terminology. Or should we stay and fight for ownership of the term? And then we remember it is only language. But sometimes language is a very big deal.
Language is a powerful vehicle. Each new call to action, each new change-making ethos is ushered in by a new vernacular. The moment we are now in – post Peace Corps earnestness, post imperial exportation of economic development models, post adopt-an-endangered-species – finds itself shedding the terminology of “beneficiary”, “capacity building”, and “it takes a village” in favour of phrasing like “co-creation”, “social nudging”, and “it takes an entrepreneur”. The social change landscape itself is as much a battleground for linguistic dominance as it is about new models for good.
In our daily work, new concepts such as Hybrid Value Chain, pre-competitive action (a notion advocating for greater collaboration around sustainability), and triple bottom line are not just fancy lexicon, but empower a whole new way of thinking and doing. As many a philosophy teacher used to say, they are “thought bombs”. A well-constructed thought bomb allows for the surfacing of new paradigms, challenging the old doctrine and providing a metaphoric bridge to the new. So what do you think? Are we in need of architecting new thought bombs? Or is this pre-occupation with language beside the point?
Olivia Khalili works globally with companies to design, implement and market social initiatives that strengthen their business. She writes about social business practices and workplace happiness at Cause Capitalism.
Erin Weed is a social entrepreneur, professional speaker, author, and business and marketing consultant to companies and non-profits across the globe. She founded the organisation Girls Fight Back.