A quick introduction to Social Entrepreneurship, Part 3

By Christian Jensen, MA Social Entrepreneurship, Goldsmiths University

What does a social enterprise aim to do?

The above description of what characterizes a social entrepreneur and social enterprise mentions the creation of social value and the change of existing paradigms in a more positive manner, but what constitutes positive is not well defined and will change depending on whichever political, national or personal ideas any given organization or entrepreneur believes in.

There is so far no governing body which compares different social values against each other in terms of importance, and to avoid bureaucratization this may be a good thing. However there are a number of projects which seem to be universally accepted as worth pursuing, such as the United Nation’s 8 Millennium development goals10:

  1.        Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2.        Achieve universal primary education
  3.        Promote gender equality and empower women
  4.        Reduce child mortality
  5.        Improve maternal health
  6.        Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7.        Ensure environmental sustainability
  8.        Global partnership for development

A red thread shared by these goals and many social enterprises could be summed up as the prevention of current or future suffering and the promotion of human wellbeing. A visual overview of how this can be done is using Maslow’s Hierarchy (or Pyramid) of Needs11, see FIG. 2.

fig 2

FIG. 2: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

While the initial theory proposed in 1953 has been developed upon further, it presents an intuitively easy representation of the problems which social enterprises can engage to increase human wellbeing.

The pyramid has five layers, each representing a level of human needs, each layer difficult to reach if you have not achieved the levels below it. They move from the basics of survival (food, shelter, safety) to the realization of one’s self (getting respect, accomplishing goals, achieving happiness in short).

In order starting from the bottom the five layers of needs are (1) physiological, (2) safety, (3) love and belonging, (4) esteem and (5) self-actualization. In addition to a quick explanation of each there will be an example of a social enterprise which deals with the challenges associated with that level, each taken from David Bornstein’s book How to change the World.
(1)    Physiological: The absolute basic human needs: food, clean water and air and shelter. These are the most important as without them survival becomes difficult or impossible.
Example:  Fabio Rosa aimed to improve the lives of farmers across Brazil by offering a system of rural electrification, meaning the farms would be connected to the national power grid and improve their efficiency thereby staying competitive and avoid closure.12
(2)    Safety: These include protection against the elements, violence (both large-scale such as war and personal such as domestic abuse), disease and poverty. Often a basic semi-societal structure is needed to provide jobs, medical attention and peace.
Example: Florence Nightingale from England started a revolution of the medical industry saving countless lives by improving nursing training, implementing scientific standardization and sharing of knowledge across hospitals.13
(3)    Love and belonging: At the third level the needs rise beyond the purely physical and concepts such as family, friendship, love and intimacy becomes prevalent.
Example: After witnessing the low standards of treatment which faced her disabled son in Hungary Erzsébet Szekeres fought heavy bureaucracy for decades to create the Alliance Industrial Union which provide proper housing, care and outreach possibilities for its patients.14
(4)    Esteem: Includes recognition, valuation, acceptance and respect, both for one-self and from others.
Example: In India Javed Abidi founded the Disability Rights Group to ensure that disabled people were promoted from an almost invisible, neglected part of society to enjoying the rights to employment and respect which he had found sorely lacking.15

(5)    Self-actualization: The ability to take charge of one’s own life and set personal goals. Without the previous four levels a person may lack the physical and psychological resources to do so. It should be noted that the idea of self-actualization is often either individual and can be shaped by the values one’s upbringing and those of the surrounding society such as the pursuit of fame, wealth, power or happiness; or ideals shared with or within a community such as national, cultural or humanitarian goals.
Example:  The organization College Summit in the United States, founded by J.B. Schramm was built on the simple premise that a lot of high school students from lower-income families and areas could attend college if only they had a support network where they had a chance to grow.16

It should of course be noted that generally any business approach would exist in the hierarchy as any business must provide value to its users and value generally exists because they solve a need, be it a supermarket which sells food and therefore solves physiological needs or the fashion industry which has convinced its consumers that their products will help them achieve respect or happiness therefore being a category 4 or 5.  This difference in value types will be explored further in chapter four.

Though Maslow didn’t use the pyramid structure himself, it is a fitting shape as more people in the world suffer from the problems in the lower layers and progressively fewer have reached the top. Another common metaphor, for example used by the Occupy Wall Street Movement and their 99% slogan17, is that the happiness and financial security of the upper layers are built and rests on the suffering and exploitation of the lower layers.

While that is a debate for another essay it is often recognized that the higher you are on the pyramid the greater your chance of being a happy, fulfilled human being. In extension any project which helps people move upwards can be categorized as a positive one. In her book Corporate Social Entrepreneurship: Integrity Within18, Christine A. Hemingway covers the relation between Maslow and Social Entrepreneurs more in depth and notes that the development of self and others often is a key part of either the enterprise or the entrepreneur herself.

Indeed if there exists a shared goal of the Social Entrepreneur community it could be to raise as many people as far up the pyramid as possible.


10. United Nations, Background description of the Millennium Goals: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/bkgd.shtml, Retrieved January 11th 2014

11. Maslow, A. H. 1953: A theory on human motivation (Classics in the history of psychology, http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm,)  Retrieved January 11th 2014

12. Bornstein, David 2004: How to change the World Chapter 3 (Penguin Books)

13. Bornstein, David 2004: How to change the World Chapter 4 (Penguin Books)

14. Bornstein, David 2004: How to change the World Chapter 5 (Penguin Books)

15. Bornstein, David 2004: How to change the World Chapter 17 (Penguin Books)

16. Bornstein, David 2004: How to change the World Chapter 13 (Penguin Books)

17. We are the 99 percent http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/post/9289779051/we-are-the-99-percent,  Retrieved January 11th 2014

18. Hemingway , Christine A. 2013: Corporate Social Entrepreneurship, Chapter: Self-actualization and transcendence, integrity and the moral character. (Cambridge Press)


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