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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Walker

Figuring Out the Who and the What to Ask


Okay, my next decisions weren't nearly life and death. But, the quality of my research choices at this point would be the difference between meaningful data and just an interesting exercise.

If I was going to focus on surveying social entrepreneurs I needed to know that the definition I was using would enable me to find a relevant sample group. I was working with the definition that:

Social entrepreneurship and social enterprise (SE) is innovation in the social sector and is often accompanied by the creation of intellectual property assets.

The nonprofit sector is large and a self-described social entrepreneur might not actually be innovating. I didn’t have the expertise to determine if an organization’s innovation meant they were a social enterprise since organizations being described as a social enterprise might be innovating, it might be a revenue generating operation, it might be both, and/or it may just have a charismatic leader and well-positioned strategy but no innovation.

To get a clear picture of intellectual property in a small sliver of the nonprofit sector I decided to limit the sample to social sector organizations classified by and registered with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as 501(c)3 organizations. Now I needed to narrow it down to social entrepreneurs, but that label is not a category recognized as a NAICS code and therefore not an easy way to find a standardized list.

I started with some old-school Internet searching and developed an initial sample by scanning “best of” or “top 25” lists found online to create a group from the overlaps among those lists. The generation of the sample through this method led to several concerns. First, each of the lists were using unique criteria for inclusion on the ranked list, including definitions of social entrepreneurship which did not always match the definition I was using. Second, not all of the organizations conducted programs in the United States, which made those organizations ineligible for this sample since an organization not operating in the U.S. would be unlikely to utilize or manage IP based on U.S. intellectual property law and protections. Finally, contact information for the current executive leadership was difficult to access since not all organizations make emails for leadership available on their websites.

I happened upon the Social Impact Exchange and found their S&I 100 Index. Using the organizations on the S&I 100 Index as the sample offered a solution to the issues created by the method outlined above. The Social Impact Exchange (at the time) only lists social enterprise organizations based in and operating in the United States. In addition, they vet each social enterprise on their list against a standard rubric for impact, growth, and evidence criteria. (NOTE: This original survey was done in 2014, and it does not appear that the list itself is still posted, but I likely have a record of which organizations were on the list because I never delete emails it seems.)

I had the who. Now, what to ask them?

If you’ve ever started a project from just an idea you know that the questions are unlimited. How should I reign in those questions to create something meaningful and concise?

I did a scan of available IP surveys and found four surveys that helped shape the format and question design of this survey. One was a survey of IP enforcement by small firms in the United Kingdom. Another survey was from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to recipients of NSERC research funding. A third survey asked Australian Cooperative Research Centres how they manage IP issues and relationships with their partners. The fourth survey was from the Intellectual Property Owners Association. That survey was sent to association members who were asked questions specifically about the strategic management of IP. These surveys were helpful in the early stages of question development and gave me a hint to the important framework of the survey: that I really wanted to know if other social enterprises had created intellectual property, did they know it, and did they do anything with it like industry does?

Development of the survey questions and survey logic went through several stages of review and testing. Finally, after a lot of iteration I had a 30-question survey to distribute to the S&1 100 sample group. After a tester group for proofreading and a pilot group from friends who worked in nonprofits to make sure the questions were understandable I was ready to launch!

The S&I 100 was actually 107 organizations. I invited each contact listed to take my hot-off-the-presses survey. Hitting send was nerve wracking. I was never so relieved and excited about project as when I got that first completed survey!

If you want to take a look at Survey 1.0 it's an appendix in Social Entrepreneurs and Intellectual Property Management.

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