Skip to main content

Defining the ‘Social’ in ‘Social Entrepreneurship’: Altruism and Entrepreneurship


What is social entrepreneurship? In, particular, what’s so social about it? Understanding what social entrepreneurship is enables researchers to study the phenomenon and policy-makers to design measures to encourage it. However, such an understanding is lacking partly because there is no universally accepted definition of entrepreneurship as yet. In this paper, we suggest a definition of social entrepreneurship that intuitively accords with what is generally accepted as entrepreneurship and that captures the way in which entrepreneurship may be altruistic. Based on this we provide a taxonomy of social entrepreneurship and identify a number of real cases from Asia illustrating the different forms it could take.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Alvord, S.H., Brown, L.D. & Letts, C.W. 2002. Social entrepreneurship and social transformation: An exploratory study. Harvard, MA: Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations Working Paper No. 15, Kennedy School of Government.

  • Cunningham, J.B. 1996. Getting started and responding to crisis. In A.M. Low & W.L Tan (Eds.), Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship and enterprising culture. Singapore: Addison-Wesley.

  • Dees, J.G. 1998. Enterprising nonprofits: What do you do when traditional sources of funding fall short? Harvard Business Review, 76: 55–67.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Drucker, P. 1985. Innovation and entrepreneurship. New York: Harper and Row.

    Google Scholar 

  • Emerson, J. & Twersky, F. 1996. New social entrepreneurs: The success, challenge and lessons of non-profit enterprise creation. A Progress Report on the Planning and Start-up of Non-Profit Businesses. San Francisco, CA: Roberts Foundation Homeless Economic Development Fund.

    Google Scholar 

  • Forsythe, F. 1982. The dogs of war. London: Bantam Books Reissue.

    Google Scholar 

  • Goh, D. & McCoy, P. 2001. Recycling works—with incentives. The Straits Times, 25 March 2001.

  • Honig, B. & Christie, M. 2003. Strategic issues of social entrepreneurship: international perspectives. Journal of World Business, special issue.

  • Kao, R. 1993. Defining entrepreneurship, past and present. Creativity and Innovation Management, 2.

  • Kao, R. 1995. Entrepreneurship: A wealth creation and value-adding process. Singapore: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Knight, F. 1921. Risk, uncertainty and profit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Krishna, A. 2002. Active social capital: tracing the roots of development and democracy. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Leadbeater, C. 1997. The rise of the social entrepreneur. London: Demos.

    Google Scholar 

  • Long, W.A. 1996. Why entrepreneurship? In A.M. Low & W.L Tan (Eds.), Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship and enterprising culture: 1–11. Singapore: Addison-Wesley.

  • Low, A.M. & Tan, W.L. (Eds.) 1996. Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship and enterprising culture. Singapore: Addison-Wesley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Putnam, R.D. 1995. Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of Democracy, 6(1): 65–78.

    Google Scholar 

  • Roberts, D. & Woods, C. 2005. Changing the world on a shoestring: The concept of social entrepreneurship. University of Auckland Business Review, 45–51.

  • Schumpeter, J. 1934. The theory of economic development. Boston: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Seelos, C. & Mair, J. 2004. Social entrepreneurship: The contribution of individual entrepreneurs to sustainable development. IESE Business Working Paper No. 553, Barcelona.

  • Shane, S. & S. Venkataraman. 2000. The promise of entrepreneurship as a field of research. Academy of Management Review, 25: 217–226.

    Google Scholar 

  • Soh-Wee, C. 1996. Start-up and early business development challenges confronting young entrepreneurs in Singapore. In A.M. Low & W.L Tan (Eds.), Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship and enterprising culture. Singapore: Addison-Wesley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Taylor, N., Hobbs, R. Nilsson, F., O’Halloran, K. & Preisser, C. 2000. The rise of the term social entrepreneur in print publications. Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research.

  • Teo, S.K. 1996. Women entrepreneurs of Singapore. In A.M. Low & W.L Tan (Eds.), Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship and Enterprising Culture. Singapore: Addison-Wesley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Von Mises, L. 1996. Human action: A treatise on economics. San Francisco: Bettina Bien Greaves.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wallace, S.L. 1999. Social entrepreneurship: The role of social purpose enterprises in facilitating community economic development. Journal of Developmental Entrepreneurship, 4: 153–175.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wee-Liang Tan.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Tan, WL., Williams, J. & Tan, TM. Defining the ‘Social’ in ‘Social Entrepreneurship’: Altruism and Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship Mgt. 1, 353–365 (2005).

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • social entrepreneurship
  • definition
  • taxonomy
  • altruism