Guest Articles

November 13

Scott Anderson / Kyle Poplin / James Militzer

Weekly Roundup 11-13-15: What’s in a Name?

Familiarity breeds contempt, and some leaders in what can popularly be called the social enterprise field (although I wince to use the term in this context) seem to have grown contemptuous (or at least weary) of the lexicon.

Two articles this week reminded me of just how limiting the terminology can be.

According to a report in Pioneers Post, Pamela Hartigan, the director of the Skoll Centre at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, told attendees at the 2015 Emerge conference that her personal view is that “social enterprise” is a mindset, not a “sector,” and we’d all be better off recognizing that:  

According to Hartigan, the terms ‘social entrepreneurship’ and ‘social enterprise’ ‘continue to dichotomise the commercial and the social spheres,’ when the reality is that ‘all commercial ventures have to be accountable for the social and environmental impacts they are having and all social ventures have to be financially sustainable in some way.’

She might find common cause with University of Michigan Ross School of Business professors Paul Clyde and Aneel Karnani, whose paper, “Improving Private Sector Impact on Poverty Alleviation: A Cost-Based Taxonomy,” was recently published in the California Management Review (paywall). Karnani and Clyde (who also is president of the William Davidson Institute – the parent organization of NextBillion) believe that businesses and nonprofits are almost always subsidized when delivering goods and services to the poor. Donors and investors in those organizations need to go in with open eyes about the likely profit limitations, and the proliferation of social enterprise jargon isn’t particularly helpful.

“We’re not taking a position on what donors and investors should or shouldn’t do,” Clyde told Ross Thought in Action. “But let’s lay some groundwork to describe what’s really going on. All these buzzwords tend to shove things under the rug, which can lead people to make suboptimal decisions.”

Added Karnani: “Our goal is to help investors and donors clarify the cost structure. It applies to donors, investors, policy makers, everyone who talks about social entrepreneurship, which itself is kind of a vague phrase. It’s useful for anyone trying to solve this serious problem. Let’s just be clear about the extent of subsidy.”

There is an argument that some terms can become so ubiquitous they lose all meaning, and we in the media love to use shorthand for complex paradigms. While I certainly see merit in these arguments, I was reminded last week that linguistic barriers to entry still exist when it comes to impact investing. Alexandra Prather with the Unitus Seed Fund made the case that the sector and its advocates should simplify their language to allow the public to better understand the concepts, and hopefully more participation will follow. She (somewhat begrudgingly) pointed to Donald Trump’s communications style as an effective example.

Prather asked, “Can impact investing jargon be toned down so it’s more accessible to the general public? Can we dumb down the dialogue so people outside of our echo chamber understand what the hell we’re talking about?”

I would add: Does dumbing down the language of a (relatively) new business approach lead to dumb actions and therefore poor results, or does it open the tent for new ideas that might just lead to better outcomes over the long haul?

It’s a question I will conveniently dodge.

– Scott Anderson


disease, language and perception

For more about limiting terminology, check out Imogen Mathers’ piece, “Words hurt: The deadly language of disease” in SciDevNet.

She spotlights a festival in London that included “films on polio in Pakistan, TB in Swaziland and HIV in Malawi (that) made important points about the relationship between language, rumour and disease, and how changing the way we perceive and talk about diseases can make them less deadly.”

A polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan was limited by public perceptions, Mathers writes, but the situation improved after it was renamed “Justice for Health.” Similarly, “ideas about disease, language and perception” are impacting the treatment and priorities of TB and HIV.

While it’s certainly possible to take terminology revisions in an unhealthy, Orwellian direction, it does seem reasonable that the way we talk about diseases should evolve along with the treatment of those diseases.

– Kyle Poplin


The Mysterious Deaths of the Salti Sisters

Questions continued to swirl this week in the aftermath of the shocking deaths of two prominent businesswomen in Jordan. On Friday, the bodies of Soraya Salti and her sister Jumana were found at the base of a building under construction in the capital city of Amman, after they apparently jumped to their deaths.

Soraya was widely respected as the founder of Injaz Al-Arab, an education initiative that works to empower youth and promote entrepreneurship across the Arab world. A globally recognized leader in social enterprise, she won the Schwab Social Entrepreneur award for Jordan and was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, before becoming the first Arab woman to win the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2009. Jumana was an accomplished business leader in her own right, serving as a top executive at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the UAE, and working with the Jordanian Royal Court on socio-economic issues.

While an investigation by Jordan’s Public Security Department has ruled out foul play, family and friends have expressed skepticism that the sisters – who friends say had shown no signs of depression – would commit suicide. But though the reasons for the tragedy remain hazy, one thing is painfully clear: The social business world has lost two leading lights, in a region where their voices were sorely needed.

– James Militzer


Illustration by Ron Mader via Flickr

Health Care, Social Enterprise
social enterprise