“The bigger issue, however, is that some of the hopes of a decade or two ago have not been realised. Social entrepreneurs claimed to bring a new mindset to business, along with radically improved results. But analysts have struggled to tie down what this means and whether it is true. Do social enterprises and entrepreneurs have a special ability to access resources, such as volunteer labour or unused buildings, or to combine assets in more effective ways? Is their advantage essentially about commitment and the ability to lock in loyalty? The jury is out on all of these questions.“
This is the verdict of incoming NESTA chief executive, Geoff Mulgan, in an article for the RSA Journal on the current state of social enterprise (primarily) in the UK. While the overall message of the article is a positive one and reflects Mulgan’s long held enthusiasm for social enterprise, the quoted passage breaks the cardinal rule of New Labour-era social enterprise promotion, that those who excitedly claim that social enterprise is inherently better than other ways of doing things should not – under any circumstances – be forced to justify their assertion with empirical evidence (or even specific examples). Unfortunately, evangelists barely have time to pick themselves up off their beanbags before Mulgan delivers another blow:
“But the emphasis on individual heroes overshot and was, at times, almost comically oversold, particularly by certain American organisations, whose Oscar-style ceremonies and awards celebrated what some saw as a ‘club-class’ elite of social entrepreneurs, often with MBAs from western universities and privileged backgrounds. The language of magic and alchemy used to describe social entrepreneurs encouraged muddled thinking and action, obscuring the extent to which most successes depend on the chemistry of teams and places, not just individual brilliance. This is one reason why it has been harder than expected to replicate the serial entrepreneurs of business in the social world.“
Some of us have been moaning about the cult of the social entrepreneur for quite a while. With hindsight, I’m more inclined towards Mulgan’s view than my own previously stated one - I now accept that the idea that the UK’s major social problems were going to be solved by the individual brilliance of business-schooled dynamic self-starters was comical rather than actively bad. The idea may have helped turn some people in the voluntary sector against social enterprise but, in many cases, those concerned also have plenty of other objections.
And, of course, in reality most successful social entrepreneurs in the UK have got on with building teams and responding to local needs rather than worrying about whether or not they had the tub-thumping rhetoric to prove that they themselves were the great leaders that the world had been waiting for. What larger numbers of social entrepreneurs in the UK have believed in is the ‘magic and alchemy’ of social enterprise.
Mulgan is right that at least part of the advantage that social enterprises do have over public sector and private sector organisations (in particular) is based on ‘commitment and the ability to lock in loyalty‘: having staff who know what they’re doing and why, and really enjoy it. Within smaller social enterprises, which is most of them, the clear social mission often means commitment and loyalty can be maintained in the face of low pay, long hours and job insecurity.
Those who point out the wider possibilities offered by social enterprise are right to do so. Looking at my own organisation, our single biggest project is One in Four, a national magazine by and for people with mental health difficulties. If we were a conventional for profit business, we wouldn’t have launched the magazine because it’s never like to make a significant profit and if we were a charity we wouldn’t have launched it because it would have to promote the charity’s campaigning goals rather than provide a service to readers.
The mistake that social enterprise enthusiasts make is to suggest that taking an enterprising approach to delivering social change necessarily makes success (or even survival) easier. In most cases it makes it more difficult. For most of us, the magic – creating a sustainable business while delivering positive social change – is our ongoing aspiration rather than an in-built characteristic of the work we do.