Considering the current skepticism surrounding the impact and efficacy of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations, some believe that a unique category of innovator known as the social entrepreneur may be society’s best hope for bringing innovative, scalable, and systemic solutions to bear on the world’s most intractable problems. Social entrepreneurs, as defined by Ashoka, have a unique set of characteristics that determine not only how they move within the world of social change-making but also how they communicate their ideas and mission to the public.

This exploratory study reviewed how social entrepreneurs currently use documentary film and visual media in their communications strategy and public relations practice, what that tells us about the emerging culture of social entrepreneurs, and whether documentary, as defined by John Grierson, is an appropriate tool for these organizations. The author interviewed three founders, three communications professionals, and three filmmakers associated with social entrepreneurial organizations and observed a course for student filmmakers learning to make documentaries for social entrepreneurs. The findings of this study suggested that social entrepreneurs used documentary film as a communications tool when it aligned with their stated missions and goals but that cost, time, and control were significant barriers to implementation. Additionally, social entrepreneurs in all phases of development exhibited a unique set of cultural characteristics that interacted with the intent, content, and effect of their films in both positive and negative ways. The author also noted three distinct levels of filmmaker involvement with social entrepreneurial organizations that impacted the intent, content, and effect of their respective films. These levels of involvement are described as collaborative, independent, and interdependent.

While the author offers some provocative observations about the role of documentary in social entrepreneurial organizations, this study remains exploratory in nature. She suggests several additional avenues of research that may further the scholarly conversation and continue to shed light on documentary film as communication for and by social entrepreneurs.



College and Department

Fine Arts and Communications; Communications



Date Submitted


Document Type





social entrepreneur, social innovation, NGO, Ashoka, documentary film, documentary content, documentary effect, documentary intent, visual media, public relations, communications, communications strategy, communications tactics, John Grierson



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Communication Commons