Social Entrepreneurship vs. Social Activism: What is the Difference?

by Kamel Al-Asmar, October 18, 2012

"Social Entrepreneur" and "Social Activist": these are two terms that are being used often lately given the recent revolutions (in which social media played a role) and the push for entrepreneurship in the region.

Yet the definition of both terms is not clear for many; you can see those who volunteered for a few times for a certain cause calling themselves "social entrepreneurs," while the ones who established social ventures to solve real social problems sometimes call themselves "social activists."

I've also witnessed this confusion in person at recent events promoting social entrepreneurship and volunteerism. While definitions are not as important as the impact of action, it's worthwhile to clarify the terms in order to spread both a culture of activism and social entrepreneurship.

So what exactly are the differences between the two terms? From my perspective, it has to do with an individual's approach. Here's my take: 

When a person realizes his/her interest in a cause, maybe advocating for it without taking it a step further, growing passion for it, or start an initiative to address it, one will be called an activist. But an activist might only become a social entrepreneur if he or she further develops his or her activism into a sustainable solution that will allow them to address the issues at hand in a scalable and impactful manner. Unlike activists, social entrepreneurs build organizations and their work is not limited by a  time frame (the end of a campaign, etc.). They keep digging deeper and branching out to be more inclusive. Activists who turn into social entrepreneurs are the ones who address a social cause with a different approach, one that includes mobilizing resources, building organizations and applying business skills to social problems. 

But to give a broader perspective, I asked a few people who are very involved in the social scene in Arab world. Here is what a few role models in entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship and activism said when I asked them to state the difference between social entrepreneurship and activism:

Dina Sherif (@dinasherif) - Associate Director at John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, American University in Cairo: "I think social entrepreneurship is a business built around the objective of solving a social challenge. In other words, it's driven by changing society and making money, which for me is perfectly valid. Most social entrepreneurs are activists - their models are geared towards change. Activists are definitely not always social entrepreneurs but are often people who just know how to talk the talk, but not necessarily use the talk to actually do and change."

Fadi Ghandour (@fadig) - Founder & CEO of Aramex: "All social entrepreneurs are activists (whether they know it or not), but not all activists are social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs are addressing specific social issues and doing something about them to solve those problems and rally support for that cause through various tools. Activists might just want to address certain issues without necessarily building organizations or doing something about it beyond being vocal."

Ghassan Nuqul (@GhassanNuqul) - Vice Chairman of Nuqul Group: "I believe that activism and social entrepreneurship are not mutually exclusive. A social entrepreneur seeks to achieve social change through innovative means. Social activism is needed in order to create recognition, momentum and support for social entrepreneurship, which is a movement to drive social change and transformation."

Iman Bibars (@ibibars) - Regional Director at Ashoka Arab World: "Social entrepreneurship is about building systems for changing local solutions to local problems. Social entrepreneurs are committed, unique and creative individuals who are obsessed with finding structural solutions to problems. Activism is a commitment to a cause and a continuous effort to address a challenge. Social entrepreneurship is a vocation and an obsession with systemic change while activism is a passionate dedication and response to a challenge."

Maher Kaddoura (@maherkaddoura) - Jordanian Social Entrepreneur: "Social Entrepreneurship is using entrepreneurship skills to solve social issues and needs. Activism is talking and working on issues but not necessarily solving them or using entrepreneurial skills."

Samar Dudin (@SamarDudin) - Community Organizer at Ruwwad: "Activism is in essence, confrontational, and it's about using different pressure tactics to support a cause, while not necessarily being actively engaged in designing and structuring solutions. Social entrepreneurship is when you recognize a social problem that creates injustice, a lack of equity, or a violation of basic human rights, and you then intentionally pursue an innovative route to create concrete social change. It's disruptive in that it focuses on using people power and unconventional resources to eventually create systems that enable and empower, eventually disrupting the power structures to recreate new forms of empowerment."

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Kamel Al-Asmar is the Founder & CEO as well as President at Nakhweh, a nonprofit organization that promotes and enables volunteerism, social entrepreneurship and CSR in the Arab world by serving those committed to change from youth, non-profit organizations, social activists and companies. Kamel is also the Founder & Online Communication Strategist at Digital and Interactive Communication Agency Ideation Box, as well as being an Ashoka Fellow, Global Shaper for the WEF, and a KAAYIA Fellow. He can be found online at @kamelasmar.

 
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