The Cross-Section of Social Entrepreneurship and Externalities: Social Entrepreneurship and Externalities, Part 4

In the first post in this series, we looked at the definition of social entrepreneurship. In the second post in this series, we looked at the definition of externalities. In the third post, we looked at some solutions to externalities. In today’s post, the last in this series, we’ll look at the cross-section of social entrepreneurship and externalities and wrap up the paper.

The Cross-Section of Social Entrepreneurship and Externalities

Let’s revisit our definitions of social entrepreneurship and externalities. Social entrepreneurship is the application of innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems in the form of massive wide-scale change, usually to the system. Externalities are a cost/benefit experienced by someone who is not a party to the transaction. Just by looking at those two definitions, my first inclination is that externalities are absolutely essential to the understanding of social entrepreneurship. Given that many of society’s most pressing social problems – in some people’s minds – can be traced back to a transaction that resulted in the negative externality, it’s hard to imagine how externalities wouldn’t be essential to the understanding of social entrepreneurship. With that being said, let’s look at some examples where these two concepts meet.

The current Director of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Pamela Hartigan, recently wrote a book chapter entitled, “Creating Blueprints for Business in the 21st Century: Social Entrepreneurship Shows the Way.” In it, she talks about the specific role of social entrepreneurs in the economic ecosystem. “Economic literature often pays much less attention to the role of positive externalities than it does to negative externalities. In so doing, it neglects the primary drivers of social entrepreneurial action.”[1] Hartigan goes on to say that neglected positive externalities should be a main focus of social entrepreneurship. A really good example of this is Wikipedia, which was created by Jimmy Wales (who is also an Ashoka Fellow). Based on that citation alone, one would have to think that externalities are part of the understanding of social entrepreneurship, but let’s see if there are others.

A paper written by a professor at INSEAD, which is consistently one of the top business schools in the world, called A Positive Theory of Social Entrepreneurship offers some more insights into neglected positive externalities. In fact, the author’s first proposition states that, “addressing problems involving neglected positive externalities is the distinctive domain of action of social entrepreneurship.”[2] It looks like Santos and Hartigan share similar viewpoints in that neglected positive externalities are a key to social entrepreneurship. These two examples make it pretty clear that neglected positive externalities feature in the field of social entrepreneurship. Let’s move onto different examples to see if any other key points arise.

If you recall, one of the solutions to externalities had to do with the internalization of the externalities. There’s a book chapter entitled, “The NYC Watershed agreement: sustainable development and social entrepreneurship,” written by Joan Hoffman. In it, she addresses some of the challenges that are faced by those in watershed collaborations (combination of economic and environmental goals). “The economic concept of externalities, or impacts of market transactions on third parties, can be extended to describe the need for social entrepreneurs . . . The new organizations fostered by social entrepreneurs are designed to internalize consideration of these externalities.”[3] It turns out that social entrepreneurs, if not by intention at least by accident, are directly addressing problems of externalities through some of the solutions that have been proposed by economists and academics.

In answering our question about whether externalities are essential to the understanding of social entrepreneurship, we have inadvertently answered the second question: are economic theories of externalities used in the professional understanding of social entrepreneurship? In this last reference, we saw that not only was there a reference to an economic theory of externalities, but there was a reference to a solution of externalities (as offered by economic theory). As a result, I think it is safe to say, “yes” to both questions.

Closing Thoughts

In this paper, we have explored definitions of social entrepreneurship and externalities. We have explored some of the muddiness around both of these definitions. We have taken a closer look at some of the different kinds of externalities (positive, negative, positional, etc.). We have looked at some of the proposed economic solutions to externalities. Then, we looked at the cross-section of externalities and social entrepreneurship. We dove deeper into the intersection of these two concepts to find that at the heart of social entrepreneurship is an inclination to solve some of the externalities facing the planet. Lastly, we were able to answer, “yes” to the two main questions of this paper: “Are externalities essential to the understanding of social entrepreneurship?” and “Are the economic theories of externalities used in the professional understanding of social entrepreneurship?”

In closing, I wanted to revisit one of the ideas put forth by Barnett and Yandle in their paper, The End of the Externality Revolution.[4] Specifically, I want to address their idea that there aren’t any externalities – only inefficiencies. As someone who has had very little training in economics, but a great deal of training in some of the other social sciences, I can appreciate this reframing of externalities. In fact, I think it is appropriate to repackage our understanding of externalities as part of the “main” function of the transaction. In calling them inefficiencies, I don’t think that Barnett and Yandle are doing this. I think both names – externalities and inefficiencies – are not entirely representative of the true state of affairs. In doing research for this paper, I came across a quote that I think captures the essence of what I’m trying to say. It was written in the aftermath of the financial collapse of 2008,[5] [emphasis mine]:

The good news is that I think the economic system we will build next will be one in which environmental and social costs will no longer be externalities; costs that get pushed off the balance sheet. The cost of doing business to the planet . . . will now be factored in.


[1] Lopez-Claros, A. (2010). The innovation for development report 2010-2011: Innovation as a driver of productivity and economic growth. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Santos, F. M. (2009). A positive theory of social entrepreneurship. Social Innovation Centre: Working Papers, 1-51.

[3] Perrini, F. (2006). The new social entrepreneurship: What awaits social entrepreneurial ventures? Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

[4] Barnett, A. H., & Yandle, B. (2009). The end of the externality revolution. Social Philosophy and Policy, 26(2), 130-150.

[5] Jones, K. (2009). When more mission equals more money: The more a business focuses on its social mission, the more revenue it will generate. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

~

If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

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One response to “The Cross-Section of Social Entrepreneurship and Externalities: Social Entrepreneurship and Externalities, Part 4

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