There has been a meteoric rise in social entrepreneurship in Western societies over the last 20 years. According to a 2020 UN report, social enterprises (organizations using business practices to solve social, cultural, or environmental issues) account for 2-3% of GDP in Australia and will generate up to 4% of GDP in Canada by 2030. In the UK, social enterprises represented 7% of all small businesses and employed 1.4 million people in 2017. Yet, in many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, where social entrepreneurship could make substantial impact, it lags.
Traditionally, economists attribute cross-national market discrepancies to available capital, market volatility, and institutional security. But, when it comes to social entrepreneurship, a new study from a special issue of the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal (SEJ) suggests a different factor entirely: how the social entrepreneur conceptualizes time.
Entrepreneurship Thinking: Short and Long
Evaluating goals and rewards and striving for them relates closely to a person’s future time perspective. Traditional, commercial entrepreneurs are typically long-term oriented because business building takes time and often incurs multiple short-term setbacks.
Social entrepreneurs employ the same tactics as commercial entrepreneurs, but the difference in the underlying motivation requires a different mindset to flourish. The SEJ researchers theorized that social entrepreneurs would be more short-term oriented and less patient with the status quo and that this difference would drive them to create social change through businesses.
The Future Tense’s Effect on Social Entrepreneurship Action
Using a sample of 205,792 individuals in 70 countries with 39 languages, the SEJ authors tested that theory by gauging how the presence of future tense in a country’s dominant language affects social entrepreneurship activities. Languages like English that use verb modifications like “will” or “shall” fall into the future-tense category. Many other languages use context rather than verbs to indicate the future saying, for example, “It is cold tomorrow” rather than “It will be cold tomorrow.”
“Individuals speaking languages with strong future time references see future rewards and challenges as more distant,” said Diana M. Hechavarria, one of the study’s authors. “We believed that mindset would foster social entrepreneurship because it places a strong value on obtaining immediate results for social issues while discounting long-term costs.”
While many countries without the future tense, notably many Scandinavian countries, see the future as closer and tend save more, invest more in education, and support more sustainable business policies, they also have more patience with short-term costs. In the context of social entrepreneurship, seeing future change as more forthcoming might undercut urgency and the necessity of action.
The Societies Where Social Entrepreneurship Thrives
After controlling for 13 individual- and country-level characteristics related to social entrepreneurship, including gender, age, education, income, and start-up skills, the researchers found that the odds of engaging in early-stage innovative social entrepreneurship almost doubled in futured-language speaking societies.
The probability of an individual being a social entrepreneur also increased where there was weak rule of law, weak property rights, and strong corruption within a future-speaking country. This is exactly the opposite environment required to foster commercial entrepreneurship, where stability and minimal setbacks are key. The researchers explained the difference as a matter of opportunity.
“Countries where a state arbitrarily applies laws and rules, suppresses individual rights, or threatens certain social groups by confiscating their property tend to have greater social problems, and there are just more opportunities for individuals to enhance societal well-being,” said Steven A. Brieger, a co-author on the study.
While the social entrepreneurship field certainly merits more research, this study suggests that perceptions of time — and the idea of urgency in particular — play a large role in the social entrepreneurship environment. More importantly, it conveys that an entrepreneur’s motivation deeply underpins their likelihood of success.
HechavarrÍa and Brieger also partnered with Ludvig Levasseur and Siri A. Terjesen to research and author the work.
J Katherine Bahr is a Knoxville-based freelance writer and content marketer with an advanced degree in creative writing and a decade working in publishing and marketing.