Accounting for Social Entrepreneurs

With anthropology leaning its trendy shoulder onto social media and new economy corporations one would think the two trends would come together around a case study of software social entrepreneurs. A profitable avenue open to anthropological investigation would be their accounting practices—how they measure more-than-profit earnings.


This research is in the emergent field of ethonomics–the discipline of defining and prioritization motivations within creative industries. Ethonomics, the guiding principle behind social capitalism, evolved capitalism, moral marketeering, and venture philanthropy, is possible with digital economies of scale, flexible labor, social media networks, user-generated content, transformations in corporate management, and a deep sense of moral universalism. Each of the two words of the last point, moral and universalism, is open to a cultural critique on the grounds of its anti-cultural relativity and also how accounting is performed on a corporate imaginaire of morality. Where would an anthropologist begin to study how para-economic value is accounted for in an adroitly late-capitalistic corporate context?

With many social entrepreneurs trudging along well below profit margins what really defines success in these emergent corporations? I should but I am not going to go into ”blended value accounting,” the theory developed by social entrepreneurship theorist Alex Nicholls of Said Business School at Oxford, but it is enough to say that metrics are being developed within the UK to measure success of social enterprises. What can anthropology contribute that business theory cannot? What are the varieties of quantitative and qualitative accounting within this genus of social entrepreneur? How do the ideal versus the actual, the observed versus the reflexively practiced, accountings of success vary? Is this visionary production or vaporware? Is philanthropic hype used to pump up the employees, to headhunt for the best activist entrepreneurs of the future? Is it just corporate greenwashing or an authentic re-direction of the corporate mission on the post-global recession Earth? I go big about social entrepreneurs as a general anthropological category to describe the simultaneity of market and mission motivation. As cultural producers and consumers we are all social entrepreneurs.

With our libraries full of histories of capitalism and critical accounts of post-colonial development there is certainly a place for anthropology in this debate. The leading edge of the classification of social entrepreneurs in business is Zahra  et al. (2009) who developed three types of social entrepreneur: Social Bricoleur, Social Constructionist, and Social Engineer. This article builds off of business writing from the 1930s and 1940s and never once mentions the internet and the epochal shifts its created within philanthropy. What follows is my typology of social entrepreneurs (SE).

This typology of social entrepreneurs include these seven categories of those who make profits while philanthropically providing materials, services, foundations, virtual services, information, or cultural spaces. Here it goes. These include material social entrepreneurs or (MSEs) that provide shelter, food, medicine, or clothing. An organization like Tom’s Shoes, who for every pair purchased gives one pair to an unshod person in the developing world, is an example of an innovative MSE. Material SEs gifts things. Invisible Children’s Mend project (you cynical visual anthropologists see video into here) provides the resources for impoverished people to make objects with markets in the West. Mend is a service social entrepreneur (SSE). Current TV, a media corporation started by Al Gore with the goals of democratizing media production and providing the space for dialogue about democracy, is an example of an SSE. Another SSE is Witness, a non-profit that trains videographers in conflict zones. Whole Foods is a SSE because it caters to conscious consumerism. Service SEs do not provide funds or things but distribution, markets, and practices. In its most dynamic form SSEs provides skills for self-empowerment. Foundation social entrepreneurs (FSE) are major corporations’ charitable foundations. Google’s and Ford Motor’s Ford Foundation are examples of FSE. The Ford Foundation grants more than $16 billion for the promotion of democracy and the reduction of global injustice. has provided over $100 million for global health, clean energy, and IT development. Omidyar Network, founded by eBay creators, is a FSE and invests in VSEs like Creative Commons and CSEs like Linden Labs. Brave New Films, a political media production and distribution company, is an example of an information social entrepreneur (ISE). Information SEs focus on making or aggregating advocacy media. Unlike Witness, Brave New Films does not teach production practices. A virtual social entrepreneur (VSE) is Causecast, a non-profit/for-profit internet hybrid that provides digital tools for cause advocacy. Virtual SEs provide freedoms and platforms. They include the non-profit organization, which uses the internet to administer microfinance loans, as well as Creative Commons and Mozilla, which are profitable practice and theory organizations advocating for liberty, innovation, and the internet. Like Brave New Films, Causecast is responsible for an online information network that connects political publics, but Causecast provides tools. Digital social entrepreneur (DSEs) consists of those corporations that are for-profit but provide social media that can be used for political organizing. The political engagement of DSE can be intended or unintended consequences of for-profit activities. Linden Labs, founders of Second Life, Facebook, and Google’s YouTube subsidiary are examples of DSEs. The communities of film activists that meet on their sites make Current TV a DSE as well as a SSE.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

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