This is the first in a series of posts on the challenges facing social entrepreneurship. The following is drawn from remarks made on October. 23, 2008 at “Leadership for the 21st Century,” an interactive training session held at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Paris.

I want to consider the question of strategy and competition among social enterprises. Is it true that there is no competition between organizations? Or do social enterprises need to be better equipped to function in the context of competition?

Among the conditions often attached to a foundation’s money is that the social enterprise receiving it must disseminate its business model to other organizations. This is not easy because there is little incentive to do so or time to allocate to this project.

I propose an alternative for exchanging knowledge that does not put a considerable burden on the people who must share it: co-location. Consider the model of La Ruche, a social enterprise that provides collective space to other social enterprises. A beehive offers a collective space where bees — the social entrepreneurs — meet and the exchange of knowledge can go through informal channels. Social enterprises that co-locate in this kind of setting are not in competition, for by design, they serve different needs by different means. Instead, the shared collective space creates a community of practice with positive incentives to share knowledge — without creating competition.

Whereas voluntary sharing knowledge is a good thing, we should not ignore that competition still exists everywhere and is itself an important driver of the dissemination of good ideas. Though often painful, it can serve us collectively if we give it the respect it deserves. Take this example: a very talented entrepreneur had the idea to create a company that would employ people with disabilities and allow the customers to share the experience of being disabled. The idea sold very well, and it came time to design a strategy to implement the concept in the real world.

But when the entrepreneur arrived in a major European city to study the possibility of implementing his business model, he was surprised to learn that he had arrived too late. Someone else had seen the idea and already launched the project. The entrepreneur was very disappointed and felt betrayed by a stranger.

When an idea is copied, who is in the wrong? In the business world, the fault lies with the creator: it is his responsibility to protect his idea and devise a strategy to exploit it.

But let’s not overlook the big picture: even though the case was disappointing for the entrepreneur, the social enterprise concept was still allowed to spread.

Like the previous example has shown, competition does not prohibit the dissemination of good ideas. However, instead of foundations demanding that the social enterprises they fund involuntarily disseminate their ideas, we should provide the tools and knowledge to entrepreneurs and equip them to effectively grow their business and innovations in the context of competition.

Photo credit: Peter Shanks