Undertaking social entrepreneurship to improve news and information

Communities / Article

At Knight Foundation, I’m lucky to be able to work with and support a number of social entrepreneurs working to improve the way news and information flow and are used – people like Anu SridharanWaldo Jaquith, Miguel Paz and Seth Flaxman. The video above explains the motivations of one of them, Caitria O’Neill of Recovers. org – and closes with a quote from her father: “You can do anything you want, and if no one else is doing it, it’s your responsibility to do it.” RELATED 

Saying no: how we’re working to be more responsive,” by John Bracken on KnightBlog.org 

Working with social entrepreneurs is an increasingly significant (and fun) part of what we do. As such I’ve been asked what the term means – and how it differs from the regular kind of entrepreneurship. Merriam-Webster says the word derives from the French  entreprendre, “to undertake.” Wikipedia says 18th century economist Richard Cantillon coined the term as “someone who pays a certain price for a product to resell it at an uncertain price.” Peter Drucker defined an entrepreneur as someone who “searches for change, responds to it and exploits opportunities.” Social entrepreneurs encompass all that, but have an additional focus on doing good. Skoll Foundation defines social entrepreneurs as “society’s change agents.” Chuck Templeton, a serial entrepreneur who runs the social business accelerator Impact Engine tweeted that social (or “impact”) entrepreneurs “build products that make their customers healthy, not obese or sick from toxins.”

David Bornstein, who wrote a book on the topic, talked about the historical forces that have enabled social entrepreneurship:

Over the past generation — because of historic shifts like the women’s movement, the spread of political freedoms and access to education, and the growth of middle classes in many developing countries — the world has seen a marked increase in the number of people who have the capacity to be change-makers….the capacity and motivation needed to solve problems is now widely dispersed.

Social entrepreneurs build new things – “nights and weekends” means something to them. They generally are not looking for a Social Network style high value exit, but they’re not opposed to making money. They’re likely to start a project, then move onto another – perhaps reflecting the generational trend among young people towards multiple careers. Many tell us that they prefer a for-profit approach – they perceive it as more flexible. We’ve spent a good deal of time at Knight helping some of them figure out whether they should structure their projects as for-profits or nonprofits. My colleague, Ben Wirz, recently shared four steps we use to help entrepreneurs decide upon a structure. Social entrepreneurs share the approach that Matter.vc’s Corey Ford emphasized last month: “What we didn’t want was people building a media property and just having their business model be, ‘Well, it’s good media, so foundations should fund it.’ That’s fine, but there’s already other people doing that.” (Matter.vc’s application deadline for media entrepreneurs is Jan. 6) While startups are getting more of our attention, we’re also focused on continuing to work with established organizations. I don’t like the term, but I expect the skills related to “intrapreneurship” to become even more important this year. Organizations change best when they create conditions favorable to internal entrepreneurs. Eric Ries argues that “‘entrepreneur’ should be considered a job title in all modern companies that depend on innovation.”  Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation looks at how a large organization was able to build the framework of the digital age. Increasingly I see media organizations becoming better at attracting people with entrepreneurial qualities. Open government is one area that requires innovation from both forces internal and external. We hope to drive both kinds of entrepreneurship with our first News Challenge of 2013, which launches next month with a focus on tools for open government. By John Bracken, director/journalism and media innovation at Knight Foundation