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Doing well, doing good
2 March 2009

Fundraising Institute Australia
Social entrepreneurs is a seemingly fancy term for those who combine bottom lines with noble causes. Who are they and what do they do? And can business and altruism really mix? QUAH CHIN CHIN finds out



FOR the average traveller, wading across muddy waters in Thailand or picking mussels to cook for dinner may hardly sound like an ideal itinerary.

But for 19-year-old Cindy Chng, these activities are part of a bigger – and green – cause. The founder and managing director of ECO Travel organises environmentally friendly tours to countries in Asean. The no-frills tours allow her clients – mostly schoolchildren and community centres – to be culturally immersed, while benefiting locals in the countries.

"The travels build a sustainable community for the nations because we create a source of income for them and educate the community to have a different view on travel," she said, adding that she works closely with tour agents in the countries to help "make them more eco-friendly".

 
    Ms Chng is part of a growing number of social entrepreneurs who choose to marry business with causes.

While many definitions abound, social entrepreneurs are generally viewed as people who seek to address social problems through a sustainable business model. Their business activities can range from creating jobs for the underprivileged to empowering poor communities through education and training.

"Social entrepreneurs identify resources where people only see problems," writes David Bornstein, the author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, who has written extensively on social innovation. "They view the villagers as the solution, not the passive beneficiary. They begin with the assumption of competence and unleash resources in the communities they're serving."

Notable names in the social entrepreneurship roll of honour include Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank which pioneered microcredit to help alleviate poverty in Bangladesh; and Singapore's Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organisation, a non-profit organisation which aims to improve toilet and sanitation conditions worldwide. Mr Yunus was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, while Mr Sim was the first recipient of the Social Entrepreneurship of the Year award in Singapore.

There are also several global institutions that promote social entrepreneurship, including Ashoka: Innovations for the Public, the Skoll Foundation, and the Schwab Foundation, a sister organisation of the World Economic Forum.

Both social and business entrepreneurs share similar characteristics: they are driven, determined, innovative, able to embrace changes and passionate about what they do. However, one crucial difference – money – separates the two, according to Willie Cheng, chairman of the Lien Centre for Social Innovation and a former chairman of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre in Singapore.

"Successful business entrepreneurs roll in it. Social entrepreneurs often have to make do without it," he writes in his recent book, Doing Good Well, explaining that most social entrepreneurs deal with issues "where getting an adequate economic return is a real challenge".

Still, dollars and sense make up an important part of the equation. Unlike businessmen, social entrepreneurs plough back most of their profits into the cause rather than shareholders' or their own pockets. This, in turn, helps their enterprises stay sustainable.

"The success of a social enterprise is measured by at least two bottom lines: financial and social," said Penny Low, founder of the Social Innovation Park, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes social entrepreneurship in Singapore. "The social enterprise must have some earned income stream so that it can go on with its business, and it must have a social bottom line, which measures the impact on the ground."

But is there really space for social causes in a corporate landscape that has traditionally focused on churning out profits? Can altruism and business mix, or must there be a catch somewhere?

Mr Cheng suggested that social and business entrepreneurs can coexist symbiotically. He cited an example of multibillionaire Warren Buffet who donated a part of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation rather than his own foundation, because Mr Buffet did not think that he is "as well cut out to be a philanthropist as Bill and Melinda are".

"There's no need for successful businessmen to cross the line to become social entrepreneurs," Mr Cheng writes. "They can do good, perhaps more good, simply by being philanthropic."

Ms Low, also a Member of Parliament for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, believed that an act of giving and receiving based solely on altruism is "not a sustainable relationship". The recipient, she explained, may in the long run grow dependent on or feel like a burden to the giver.

"Social entrepreneurship isn't just about doing good; it's about doing good and doing well at the same time," she said. "Wellness could be defined in many ways: physical wellness, mental wellness, spiritual wellness and of course, financial wellness."

Indeed, Ms Chng of ECO Travel counted the "intangibles" from her green cause as her returns on investment. "I think the business and social aspects can mix, although somehow one of them has priority," she said. "For us, the priority is the social cause."

The original article can be downloaded here.

About The Business Times
The Business Times is widely considered to be South East Asia’s leading business daily. It is published by Singapore Press Holdings.


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