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Defining Social Innovation and

Social Entrepreneurship

The field of social innovation can be defined as novel solutions to social problems that are more effective, efficient, just, or sustainable than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals (Phils, et al, Social Science Innovation Review).

Social entrepreneurs can be understood as positive, transformative practitioners in the field of social innovation: people with new ideas to address major social problems who are relentless in the pursuit of their visions, people who simply will not take no for an answer, who will not give up until they have spread their ideas as far as they possibly can (Bornstein, How to Change the World, Oxford University Press).

The novel solutions to root causes of social problems through sustainable models are often characterized as “a blurring of sector boundaries” (Dees, Defining Social Entrepreneurship, listed with other suggested reading on this site). While the innovators are interested in financial sustainability, capturing value privately or via dollar-denominated means solely is not the principal motivation; social benefit is.

Social innovation and social entrepreneurship, then, are evidenced in both non-profit and for-profit ventures (Hartigan and Elkington, The Power of Unreasonable People, Harvard Business School). By leading solutions, the approaches depart from conventional charity and a managerial approach to social problems. Traits and characteristics include:

  • A mission to create & sustain social value, increasing human capability (usually involving marginalized populations), not solely dollar-denominated value
  • Recognizing & relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to achieve broad social impact
  • Engaging in a process of continuous innovation and adaptation, relying often on measures that go beyond traditional market feedback
  • Acting boldly without limitation to resources in hand, using entrepreneurial skills
  • Exhibiting a heightened sense of accountability, given the powerful intrinsic, motivational value of positively changing human life and increasing capability

Social innovation in context

There are more than 50 academic centers, 500 professors and dozens of undergraduate and graduate programs across American higher education, focusing on social innovation and social entrepreneurship. Institutions range from large, public universities to small, private liberal arts colleges.

The myriad models of social innovation – and the stories of social entrepreneurs who dream, discern, design and do – are especially compelling in a learning context like Marquette University given its Catholic, Jesuit identity and Ignatian spirituality. There are numerous existing kindred programs on campus (Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship, Manresa Project, Trinity Fellows, Center for Peacemaking, Office of Mission & Ministry, among others) and the Initiative seeks to complement and, hopefully, augment their good work.

Social innovation and social entrepreneurship make key contributions to the Marquette experience, providing:

  • An interdisciplinary tool for learning – Understanding complex social problems and contemplating possible solutions involves engaged, applied learning across the disciplines, and requires systems-thinking, collaboration, empathy and problem-solving.
  • A universal framework for life – everyone can be a positive changemaker, irrespective of vocation or journey, bringing to life the Marquette call to Be the Difference, benefiting communities, society as a whole and the world.

The Social Innovation Initiative does not seek to promote social entrepreneurship as being better than conventional entrepreneurship. It does, however, recognize and promote the underlying belief in human dignity and the real value of increased individual capability – as expressed in equitable and sustainable commerce – as a key motivation of social innovation, transcending solely dollar-denominated ventures. In the same way, the goal of the Initiative is not to produce social entrepreneurs en masse upon graduation, but rather to provide augmented means of problem solving, empathy and understanding systems for students who desire to be the difference for others.


“Ultimately, we must understand the
need to be agents of change.”       

Pedro Arrupe, S.J.


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Marquette as Changemaker Campus