Scott Fairbanks

The Reality of Terminology: Beyond Definitions

Across the field, we oscillate between the terms social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and changemaking among others when describing our work in higher education. Often trying to agree upon specific definitions for these terms can spark contention, and stakeholders frequently find themselves mired in debate. However, it does not have to be this way.

The reality is that there are numerous ways to define each of these terms. Looking only at the definition of social entrepreneurship, the late Greg Dees referred to social entrepreneurs broadly as “change agents in the social sector,” [1] while Sally Osberg and Roger Martin of the Skoll Foundation define social entrepreneurship as identifying opportunities to create social value in response to an “unjust equilibrium.”[2]

Our own organization, Ashoka, is recognized by many for its role in defining and building the field of social entrepreneurship. When Ashoka was launched in the early 1980’s, it was very narrowly focused only on social entrepreneurship  – through the selection and support of systems-changing social entrepreneurs called Ashoka Fellows. However, over time we have broadened our mission to the idea of Everyone a Changemaker™. We now run several programs at Ashoka focused on building changemaker skills starting as early as elementary school. Through these programs, the aim is to empower and equip everyone to create change regardless of their field or potential for scale. By evolving our vocabulary to include social innovation and changemaking, we can ensure that our terminology is inclusive of these further social change strategies.

In Ashoka U’s work with universities, we are constantly asked to define what these terms mean to us and to rank their importance. However, we recognize that the unique context of an institution’s history and culture might affect receptiveness to specific definitions. For that reason, we do not prescribe a specific definition that must be used by our partners. Instead, we encourage interdisciplinary collaboration to find a meaningful, working definition at each institution that is clear enough but does not hamper progress.

Even still, that can be a process. In the onboarding for our newest program, the Commons, Ashoka U set out to acknowledge this tension by proposing relational definitions based on consistent, underlying concepts of some of the most popular terms:

For purposes of the Commons, each participant is asked to align their use of terminology with this framework and explicitly articulate any deviation in their thinking. This framework allows both participants and Ashoka U to clearly and effectively communicate over the course of a semester, no matter the differences in our specific interpretations of these terms.

This graphic illustrates that there is a spectrum of social change strategies – and each strategy plays a crucial role in the effort to create meaningful and lasting change. Beyond the Commons, we have found that this can be a valuable tool for interpreting these concepts and in stewarding tricky institutional conversations about terminology. Of course, the graphic above is not exhaustive, and we encourage you to try mapping additional terms into the existing circles.

Our goal as educators is to provide students with the knowledge and experiences to create positive change in society. Bringing clarity to these terms can inform the social change strategy at your institution, and increase engagement of stakeholders across campus and in the community. Let us know your thoughts, how you use this graphic, or why you disagree!


[1] Greg Dees, The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship (Duke University, 2001)

[2] Sally Osburg and Roger Martin, Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition (Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2007)