If it Walks Like a Duck, is it Really a Duck? The Continuing Challenge of Defining Social Entrepreneurship

Like many people, we employ search agents to help us stay current on topics of interest. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that one of our search agents targets the term "social entrepreneurship." Interest in the practice of social entrepreneurship has grown since 2005 as reflected by the chart below. Despite this, there is still little consistency in how social entrepreneurship is defined by the commentators in the media. While a strict definition is perhaps impossible to manage, it begs the question of why the concept is so difficult to pin down with any clarity. Take for example a recent Forbes article in which the eyewear company Warby Parker's "buy-a-pair, give-a-pair" (BAP/GAP) initiative is highlighted. For each pair of glasses sold, the company donates money to non-profit organizations in developing countries that in turn source and sell glasses to local consumers at affordable prices. Without implying any criticism of Warby Parker's innovation, it raises a question of whether donating profits for a good cause is social entrepreneurship or rather something closer to philanthropy. At its heart, BAP/GAP does not fundamentally alter how glasses are designed, manufactured, or used by the consumer. While BAP/GAP creates a source of affordable eyewear for consumers in developing countries, it does not address the underlying economic, market, or social conditions that put these products beyond the reach of low income consumers. Finally, it is not clear whether the considerable benefits of BAP/GAP can be sustained without continuing outside financial support by Warby Parker or other donors. Considered in this light, BAP/GAP is perhaps better appreciated as a significant philanthropic initiative that also helps an innovative company sharpen its brand as a socially conscious David taking on Luxottica, the Goliath of of the eyewear world. This in no way diminishes the innovation that BAP/GAP represents; however in this case the "duck" seems to be walking the walk of a philanthropist rather than a social entrepreneur.



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