Social entrepreneurship and the millennial generation: all about altruism?

Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen Fund, Blake Mycoskie of TOMS. These are some of the most widely recognized and respected social entrepreneurs in the world today.

These are individuals “with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems”, “who dream up and take responsibility for an innovative and untested idea for positive social change, and usher that idea from dream to reality, and who combine “the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline, innovation, and determination”.

Though the definition may vary, the appeal of the “social entrepreneur” among the Millennial Generation (those born between 1983 and 2001) is undeniable, as highlighted in a recent post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network by Lara Galinsky.

As senior vice president of Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that provides seed funding and technical assistance to emerging social entrepreneurs, Galinsky has seen her fair share of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Millennials eager to start organizations that will solve every problem from poverty to pollution.

Yet, Galinsky – despite or perhaps because of – her position believes that not all Millennials should become social entrepreneurs. Invoking the Igbo proverb of “It takes a village to raise a child,” Galinsky argues that it takes an “entire ecosystem” to solve the world’s biggest problems.

In order to succeed, social entrepreneurs need the support of fundraisers, designers, and communications and development specialists to transform their bold ideas into reality. According to Galinsky, to harness the Millennials’ passion for social change:

“We must move away from the antiquated concept of vocation, which emphasizes what’s in it for the individual: whether it will sustain their interest or bring them fame or fortune… They needn’t be founders of new organizations to have an impact on the world. But they should be founders of their careers.”

It’s a logical argument and a lovely sentiment, but it ignores the obvious question of why? Why is this particular generation – the Millennials – so captivated and fixated on social entrepreneurship? The problems they want to solve have been around for decades, even centuries. Why now? Why this generation?

Call me pessimistic, but I don’t think this surge in social entrepreneurial spirit is due to the Millennial generation being more altruistic or socially conscious than their predecessors. In fact, I doubt that altruism plays a major role in the decision of most Millennials to pursue this career path.

As the Chronicle of Education reports, a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology compared the traits of Millennials, Generation X’ers, and Baby Boomers at the same age from 1966 to 2009 and found that Millennials place much greater value on money, image and fame than previous generations.

Basically, Millennials are more “Generation Me” than “Generation We”. This is a generation that has been raised to believe that they are special; that they can do and be anything they want. This is the generation that gave birth to the term “helicopter parent,” a generation that has been prepped and primed from an early age to get the best grades, participate in the most extracurricular activities, attend the best schools, etc.

So when it comes to the Millennial obsession with social entrepreneurship, I can’t help but think that, to them, it represents just another notch on their belt of accomplishments, another step on the ladder to individual achievement and recognition.

Millennials have spent their entire lives in the spotlight, at the center of their parents’ and their own individual universes. For many, I think social entrepreneurship provides an opportunity to remain in the spotlight, rather than assume a supporting role.

In her post, Galinsky admits that Echoing Green, and other organizations like it, “shines a bright light on social entrepreneurs, often making them stars.” Moving forward, though, she notes that Echoing Green will be “cutting the spotlight and raising the house lights” to focus more on the ecosystem needed for social enterprises to succeed.

But when the lights come up in the house, will there be any Millennials willing to work backstage?


The following two tabs change content below.

Jennifer Foth

Jennifer Foth completed her undergraduate studies at Middlebury College, majoring in International Studies with a focus in Political Science. After graduation, Jennifer worked for two years at ACCION International, a Boston-based microfinance non-profit organization, where she oversaw the development of the senior management monthly report and partner-wide social performance indicators. Jennifer received her Masters in Public Health in International and Environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health in September 2012. She recently returned from Ethiopia where, as part of her required Masters practicum, she completed a child needs assessment for Betasab, an organization that provides housing, education, and health care services to OVCs in Addis Ababa. As a 2012-13 Global Health Corps Fellow, Jennifer is currently working as Health Sector Quality Improvement Coordinator for Millennium Villages Project in Zomba, Malawi.

Latest posts by Jennifer Foth (see all)

2 thoughts on “Social entrepreneurship and the millennial generation: all about altruism?”

  1. Great article! But I have to disagree with some of the characterizations of Millennial social entrepreneurs. Cone released a study that showed that the Millennial generation is the most cause-oriented generation since World War II. Millennials and Moms are the two demographics that are most likely to support social impact initiatives. Also, I hear this characterization a lot about how Millennials grew up: “a generation that has been prepped and primed from an early age to get the best grades, participate in the most extracurricular activities, attend the best schools, etc.” But while that was a lot of our experience, it is mainly a privileged experience. Not everyone in our generation had these same luxuries. And that competition also comes from the fact that more people were going to college and so the stakes were increased. Furthermore, as a social entrepreneur who lives in Los Angeles, I know a lot of entrepreneurs. There’s a big startup scene here – in social impact, tech, and fashion. I don’t think that the drive to be a social entrepreneur – or any entrepreneur for that matter – is just about me, me, me. Of course, anyone who creates something wants to be recognized for it. And press is great for business. I don’t think anyone would turn down being on the cover of Forbes. But, there’s a lot more to the drive behind being an entrepreneur. I think it’s great that we are at a time in history where entrepreneurs are put on similar pedestals as rock stars. Social entrepreneurs are the same as every other entrepreneur they just want to have an impact as well. Which I think is another fantastic trend. That it’s not all about fame, money, etc. It’s about doing something worthwhile with that. Part of the reason for that trend I think is the Internet. We grew up seeing and connecting with people around the world. It’s a lot harder to turn a blind eye or to say you simply didn’t know about the injustices facing the world today. And I think that’s why we see more action. Finally, whenever there’s a recession social enterprise tends to increase in popularity. A lot of the groundwork for the movement today was laid in the 1980s right after that recession. But those who pushed social enterprise then were part of an older demographic and often categorized as ‘radicals’. Since the Great Recession, we’ve seen an even bigger push towards social enterprise. And I think it’s the perfect storm – a generation without jobs, a generation who doesn’t have the same incentives to follow the status quo and stay in a job that doesn’t fulfill them personally, a generation that wants more out of life, a generation that is nimble, a generation that is more in tune with the world and wants to change it, etc. I also think it’s about realizing that there doesn’t have to be a trade off between “me” and “we”. You can look out for yourself and still look out for the greater good as well.

    That being said I do think there is a reason to be cautious. A lot of people are coming into social enterprise from all different backgrounds and not everyone understands the complexity of some of the issues facing the world. I think in international development, we learn a lot about what we got wrong in the past. And how much of a process it is to figure out the right approach. I think social entrepreneurs who don’t have that background but are still focusing on tackling international development issues might have some trouble and there might be a disconnect between intended impact and the actual impact.

    This was way longer than intended or necessary! But in sum, I think that Millnnials and social entrepreneurship have been influenced by a number of experiences, situations, and cultural norms. It’s too complex to put into a box. And as much as there might be some downsides, there’s a lot of positive attributes to this generation and this movement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *