PhD abstract

From High-Tech Culture to Venture Philanthropy:

A Case Study in the Mentoring of Social Entrepreneurship

Asaf Stein

 Department of Sociology and Anthropology

 Ph.D Thesis

 Submitted to the Senate of Bar-Ilan University

This work was carried out under the supervision of Professor Ilana F. Silber.


The concept of entrepreneurship has extended beyond the traditional realms of business and economy in recent years, gainingcultural prominence and garnering increasing academic interest.  As yet, however, little research has been devoted to the ways in which the idea translates from the economic to the social realm in general, and how it is constructed and experienced in non-profit institutional frameworks, such as new forms of philanthropy, venture philanthropy, and social entrepreneurship organizations, in particular. The study at hand aims to fill this gap by examining the ways in which ‘entrepreneurship’ is constructed and interpreted by participants in a mentoring program for ‘social entrepreneurship’ offered by a venture philanthropy foundation. Specifically, ethnographic research was conducted in the framework of a foundation established by Jewish entrepreneurs and executives from the high-tech industry in Israel and the United States, with the express aim of contributing entrepreneurial skills to agents of social change in Israel. To this end, this foundation initiated a bi-annual program for 'social entrepreneurs', offering training in entrepreneurship and management, financial aid (for most participants), and personal coaching by a ‘mentor’ – a volunteer highly experienced in business and management.

The fieldwork was carried out over a year and a half (2009-2010) and included participant observation of the foundation’s activity, focusing on meetings devoted to the entrepreneurial mentoring program, as well as semi-structured in-depth interviews with most of the program’s alumni (29 interviews with 16 program fellows and 13 mentors).

The first part of the dissertation provides an historical account of venture philanthropy and social entrepreneurship as new developments steering the idea of entrepreneurship into the heart of social action for the public good. It is divided into three distinct but interrelated areas of historical development: a) business – the rise of entrepreneurship, and of hi-tech entrepreneurship in particular; b) philanthropy – changes in Western philanthropy (particularly American) from the end of the 19th century on, including its increasing  incorporation of entrepreneurial principles; c) social entrepreneurship – the growing presence of this very concept and related practices among activists and non-profits in recent years.

The next chapter elaborates a theoretical framework for analysing the current field of study, drawing on two major theoretical developments: First, the concepts of 'governmentality' and the 'entrepreneurial self', originating in the work of Michel Foucault, and the research tradition concerning 'the gift' and giving relationships (especially the ‘gift-paradigm’ school of thought, led by Alain Caillé and Jacques Godbout, among others).

According to Foucault’s distinctive interpretation of governmentality in the neo-liberal age, individual actors are perceived as motivated by an ambition to constantly improve their ‘human capital’ in all spheres of life, whether social or financial. This aspiration is epitomized in the image of ‘the entrepreneurial self’ (which Foucault proposed as an alternative to the liberal concept of ‘homo economicus’). Foucault’s reading enables the identification of attributes that also distinguish actors in present-day 'new' and 'venture' philanthropy (and in social action in general), as opposed to philanthropic actors in previous periods. Using this analytical grid can help examine the construction of entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial self in the framework of the mentoring program studied here, thereby also compensating for the dearth of empirical research on actual govermentality practices on the level of the self in contemporary settings.

In the ‘gift paradigm’ tradition, displays of giving and receiving are seen as central to shaping social ties and a crucial, pervasive aspect of social life. Contemporary researchers of ‘the gift’ (influenced by Marcel Mauss' 'The Gift') thus claim that, although the current age is apparently ruled by principles of capitalistic-utilitarian exchanges, gift systems are still shaping interpersonal ties. Yet little empirical research has centred on the interface between gift-giving and receiving and the market sphere in general, and those aspects of the market sphere most closely corresponding to Foucault's ideas on neo-liberal governmentality in particular. The study at hand precisely examines this interface through the phenomenon of ‘new philanthropy’, and within it so-called ‘venture philanthropy’ specifically, i.e. that form of philanthropy which aims to adopt managerial and entrepreneurial principles from the market sphere and apply them to the nonprofit organizations recipients of donations in the social sphere.

Following, a methodological chapter that situates the study within the qualitative constructivist paradigm and the tradition of cultural-anthropological research, discusses the two main tools of research put to use (participant observation and interviews), while also offers a reflective account of selected aspects of this researcher's interaction with and access to the field.

Presentation of the findings is divided into two sections, the first focusing on the meaning and characteristics of entrepreneurship, and the second with the relationships of giving and receiving, as experienced by the program’s diverse participants. As it emerged from the fieldwork, entrepreneurship tends to be interpreted and experienced as: a) a cluster of personal traits, b) which is augmented by possession of knowledge, skills and managerial ‘tools’, and c) operates in a social setting that positions the entrepreneur as an ideal figure, in both the market and the social spheres. However, each of these components, when applied to the idea of social entrepreneurship, also has aspects that are perceived as different from those of business entrepreneurship, and as relevant only to social action. Thus, social entrepreneurship is perceived as based on the qualities necessary to business entrepreneurship, to which unique characteristics are added, at times causing disagreement and tension between the different actors involved with the mentoring program.

To be specific: a) The qualities of the entrepreneur, which actors in the field identified as characterizing both technological and social entrepreneurs, are: love of challenges, leadership, zeal and devotion, a tendency to manipulate, and shrewdness. Kind-heartedness and caring for others, on the other hand, were identified as additional qualities unique to social entrepreneurs. b) The knowledge and skill set identified as relevant to social entrepreneurs consisted of both structured knowledge, which can be learned and applied in an organized way, and non-structured knowledge, which can be acquired only through experience and acquaintance with seasoned entrepreneurs. They were also divided into the source of knowledge – whether business-entrepreneurial or social. A prominent and complex body of entrepreneurial knowledge that was identified relates to dealing with money (‘fundraising’, ‘generating income’, ‘budget management’, etc.). Such financial knowledge was a locus on which the tension between the business and social spheres played out with particular force, especially as regards profit from social ventures (for instance raising fear that profitable activities will compromise the initial social mission of the venture). Moreover, analysis  of the qualities, knowledge and skills identified with the idea of ‘entrepreneurship’ also revealed that most of them match the spirit of neo-liberal governmentality in Foucault's sense of these terms, as they construct the entrepreneur as a person motivated primarily by the desire to enrich his or her ‘human capital’, preferring it over financial profit.

c) Choosing a materially modest lifestyle, which is sometimes masterfully displayed, was experienced as a central feature that provides relief (and even redemption) from past personal dissatisfactionthat the social entrepreneur experienced. It was also seen as a sacrifice necessary to the social change that the entrepreneur hopes to achieve. Accordingly, living a full entrepreneurial lifestyle was viewed as suitable only for people with specific qualities, who are able to pursue an unusually demanding lifestyle (especially in the case of social entrepreneurship, which also requires modesty and material sacrifice). Therefore, although entrepreneurship in its present form is an ideal towards which all citizens should strive, adopting the associated lifestyle is still perceived (by both business and social entrepreneurs, and somewhat in tension with Foucault's own conception) as only feasible for ‘a select few’.

In the second section of the dissertation findings, which centres on the ties created between actors in the field, it is proposed that even now, as technologies and ideas from the business sphere gain prominence in the social sphere, ‘gift systems’ that establish relationships are still central to understanding all human encounters. The study at hand demonstrates how gift exchanges and ties between individuals in society exist also in the business-social sphere. The findings reveal that, along with the official, contractual relationship between the program alumni and the philanthropic foundation, more personalized and emotional ‘gift relations’(the kind that involves emotional bond) are also formed between the program fellows and the business-entrepreneurship representative. As would be expected by gift researchers, these ties generate a range of emotions, including satisfaction, identification, gratitude and a sense of obligation. Three factors, each contributing differently to the establishment of these ties (in increasing order of importance) were identified: Money, knowledge, and social change. The unique qualities of each of these three gifts is discussed based on measures such as the direction of gift-giving, the strength of the gift’s impact (on the relationship, and the emotions it generates), and the balance of power entailed in the giving of the gift.

The analysis and summary chapter presents the study’s contribution and potential consequences, along with proposals for future research: The findings can enrich understanding of entrepreneurship and help comprehend the ways in which this concept operates beyond the business sphere. They demonstrate how all the actors in the field adopt a combined approach, viewing entrepreneurship both as an innate quality and an acquired skill-set. In addition, the findings reveal that entrepreneurship is seen as relevant to social action, as many parallels are drawn between social action and business entrepreneurship. In the shift from the business to the social realm, however, differences also emerge, as kind-heartedness and the desire for financial gain are marked as central factors that distinguish between the realms and can cause tension.

In the context of ‘gift’ research, the study shows that in spite of what is appear to be unprecedented dominance of utilitarian ideas and market technologies in all aspects of social life, human interactions still retain the power to establish complex gift relationships between individuals (exemplified in the ties formed between the social entrepreneurs and their mentors), and still holds the ability to claim ownership over knowledge unique to the social realm (illustrated by the definition of entrepreneurial knowledge that originates in the social sphere). The study also reveals that the "spirit of the 'gift'" (even if not precisely the same as classically defined by the 'gift-paradigm' school of thought) also exists in organized philanthropic frameworks – thus widening the range of social action and institutions in which gifts, and dynamic gift-relations, can be found. This contributes to a nascent theoretical discussion on the existence of gifts in institutional frameworks of giving such as philanthropic organizations (as opposed to direct giving between individuals). Finally, the interpretation presented in this study, according to which ‘knowledge’ and ‘change’ can operate as gifts given within a reciprocal relationship, can potentially be applied to a wide range of disciplines. For example, the insights offered can be used within a burgeoning approach in humanistic-pedagogical thought, which views teacher-pupil relations as a form of gift relationship based on ‘the gift of knowledge’.

On a broader theoretical level, entrepreneurship can be viewed as yet another way in which impersonal technologies and utilitarian-commercial elements increasingly penetrates the social sphere while alienating the social agents involved in the process. In this context, the study can contribute to a long-term discussion among philosophers and researchers on social actions that utilize and assimilate scientific ideas (which are usually presented as technologies, or as ideas that represent rational, utilitarian or commercial thinking) to the humanistic realm of social life. Thus, the study can enhance discussion in various realms that entail the creation of interpersonal ties between giver and receiver, and help interpret these ties.

On a more personal level, the study is intended to aid understanding of how relationships are established between people and what drives action taken to help others, in light of a social reality in which, in varying social settings, each and every one of us is sometimes expected to be a bit (or a lot) of an entrepreneur.