The Players and Practice: The Making of a Field

Since it is not possible to detail a comprehensive history of social entrepreneurship movement and all those that have made contributions to its evolution in this report, this section provides a brief historical overview of some key players and events that have contributed to shaping the field of social entrepreneurship.


Perhaps the roots of entrepreneurial activities in the social sector context can be drawn to cooperatives which have functioned as a means to fund socioeconomic agendas as early as the mid-1800s. Robert Owen (1771-1858) fathered the cooperative movement. A Welshman who made his fortune in the cotton trade, Owen believed in putting his workers in a good environment with access to education for themselves and their children. These ideas were put into effect successfully in the cotton mills of New Lanark, Scotland. It was here that the first cooperative store was opened. Spurred on by the success of this, he had the idea of forming "villages of cooperation" where workers would help themselves out of poverty by growing their own food, making their own clothes and ultimately becoming self-governing.

Fair Trade

Fair Trade is another predecessor to the contemporary social entrepreneurship field. Early attempts to commercialize fair trade goods in Northern markets were initiated in the 1940s and 1950s by religious groups and various politically oriented NGOs. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and SERRV International were the first, in 1946 and 1949 respectively, to develop fair trade supply chains in developing countries. The products, almost exclusively handicrafts, were mostly sold in retail outlet called "Worldshops." MCC's historic Worldshop, Ten Thousand Villages, is well-known today and has numerous locations throughout the US. Ten Thousand Villages operates as nonprofit subsidiary social enterprise of MCC.

Community Development Corporations

In the United States, Community Development Corporations (CDCs) made their appearance catalyzing economic growth by investing in job creation, business development, real estate and affordable housing in target communities. Prior to the 1970s, banks "redlined" against minority neighborhoods, even to credit-worthy residents. In 1973, ShoreBank founders, Ron Grzywinski, Mary Houghton, James Fletcher, and Milton Davis, with backgrounds in banking, social service and community activism, decided to buy a bank in a disinvested neighborhood, and create complementary affiliates, focusing all of the resources on one neighborhood.

Social Firms or Affirmative Businesses

In the 1960s to 1970s American and European nonprofits began experimenting with enterprises to employ disadvantaged populations. In the mid-1960s, John Durand, started working with 7 mentally retarded people and by 2005 Minnesota Diversified Industries had revenues of $40,000,000 and employed over a 1,000 physically and mentally disabled people. Similarly, in 1971 with $1,000 loan from a moneylender Mimi Sibert began a program for former felons and substance abusers. Since, Delancey Street has successfully mainstreamed 14,000 former clients entirely on self-generated resources through its 20 social enterprises run entirely by clients.


Although presently few microenterprise organizations commune in the social entrepreneurship space, social entrepreneurship field views the microfinance institution (MFI) as a quintessential social enterprise and sees its leaders as some of the world's most formidable social entrepreneurs. From early on practitioners implemented MFIs as a mission-centric vehicle by which to achieve wide-scale sustainable social impact.

Civil Society Organizations

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries in this part of the world experienced rapid proliferation of civil society organizations (CSOs), their development aided in part by international development agencies. In the 1990s, previously well-funded NGOs and CSOs began to confront resource scarcity due to transitional economies and shifting funder priorities, coupled with the slower than expected private sector growth, thus creating a funding gap.

Base of the Pyramid (BoP)

Interest in the "base (or bottom) of the pyramid" was catalyzed by a paper written by two University of Michigan professors in 2002. In "The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid", C.K. Prahalad and Stuart Hart highlight the untapped market potential of the four billion people at the base of the economic pyramid. In this article, the global population is divided into three segments, based on purchasing power parity (PPP). BoP customers are defined as those with a PPP of less than $1,500 per year.

Government Funders

The Inter-American Development Bank began supporting social enterprises (cooperatives and NGOs) through the Small Projects Fund in 1978 long before there was a field associated with these organizations. In 1998, the Social Entrepreneurship Program (SEP), which replaced the Small Projects Fund, was created to promote social equity and the economic development of poor and marginal groups. In its 29-year history, the Bank has supported numerous projects that fall under the rubric of social enterprise through this program.

Venture Philanthropists and "Philanthropreneurs"

In the last fifteen years, a huge amount of new wealth has been created which is influencing philanthropic giving. This year, as never before, the line between philanthropy and business is blurring. A new generation of philanthropists has stepped forward, for the most part young billionaires who have reaped the benefits of capitalism and believe that it can be applied in the service of charity. In the past, the rich endowed their estates upon passing. Now not only do they want to give their money away while living, but want to play an active role in doing so. Drawing on their success in business, new economy philanthropists apply market principles to their philanthropic efforts and view grant-making through a venture capitalist lens. They treat charity as "social investment" for which they expect to realize a measured social return (and often a financial return) and thus have been dubbed "venture philanthropists."