This is the first in my new occasional series of reviews of books that social entrepreneurs might like to have a read of but Martin Clark’s The Social Entrepreneur Revolution is probably most usefull read in tandem with Craig Dearden-Phillips’ Your Chance to Change the World (which I’ll write about at some point in the future).
Clark’s book tells you what social entrepreneurs are and puts their activities and approach into context – in fact, a range of different contexts – while Dearden-Phillips provides a practical toolkit for getting on and doing social enterprise. Clark, Deputy Chief Executive of social enterprise bond specialists, Citylife, combines enthusiasm for social enterprise with a wide-ranging knowledge of the movement (or at least the bits of the movement he’s interested in).
Clark’s social enterprise year zero is the arrival on the scene of Bill Drayton’s Ashoka (the global association for leading social entrepreneurs) and Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank. This form of social enterprise, probably better described as social entrepreneurialism, is about individuals coming up with game-changing ideas for social change and battling for the support, understanding and resources to put them into practice.
It’s easy to misunderstand this view of social entrepreneurialism in terms of the grim caricature promoted by many politicians – particularly during the New Labour era – that what we need is lots of charismatic figures who turn up, do a bit of motivational shouting and suddenly transform the fortunes of disadvantaged communities by the force of their massive personality.
Clark is not suggesting that. Most of the heroes of his book are what he describes as ‘extraordinary ordinary people’ such as Colin Crooks of furniture recycling specialists Green Works or, further afield, Jack Sim, whose Singapore-based World Toilet Organisation aims to change the world by championing and incentivising greater access to public sanatisation.
The global perspective of the book is both its strength and weakness. It’s a strength in terms of informing UK (and other) readers about the work of social entrepreneurs such as Sim and Thai social entrepreneur, Somsook Boonyabancha, who works with urban squatters and land owners to improve life in Thailand’s slums. It’s a weakness because UK-based readers are likely to get a misleading impression of the relevance of the work of Clark’s ‘Mega Social Entrepreneurs’ such as Ashoka’s Bill Drayton or E-Bay boss turned social enterprise supporter, Jeff Skoll, to the world they are likely to operate in if they start a social enterprise in their local area.
It’s interesting to read about Ashoka’s role in identifying and supporters potential social enterpreneurs in countries across the globe and Skoll’s mixture of funding similar work and supporting the production of films with socially important messages but if you’re thinking of starting a new social enterprise in a disadvantaged community in Birmingham the last thing you want to be doing is sitting around waiting for some mega social entrepreneur to turn up and help you.
This Social Entrepreneur Revolution is essentially a small ‘p’ political introduction to the post-1980s phenonmenon of social enterprise and social entrepreneurialism. It’s not about co-ops or other pre-existing forms of socially driven business. It’s great on the theory of that form of social enterprise – based on the drive and ideas of individuals - and equally good in its descriptions of the experiences of the shining stars of that top level social enterprise world.
Where it falls down is in convincingly relating the idea of top social entrepreneurs delivering mega social change to the idea of lots of social enterpreneurs delivering some social change in local communities. For potential social enterpreneurs (and current social enterpreneurs) it’s a well-written and research contribution, delivered from a perspective that it’s important to understand. But it’s equally important to understand that it is just one perspective.