Death of the cult of the social entrepreneur?

Exciting news from the recent Oxford-based social enterprise gatherings relayed by Nick Temple at SSE. Nick reports that:

We’ve written here before about the myth of the heroic individual social entrepreneur, and critiqued Skoll, Ashoka, Schwab and others for perpetuating that myth in the past (as opposed to successful social entrepreneurs building effective teams, groups, networks and movements that support and sustain and scale their change). And, indeed, been critiqued for it ourselves at times. But I think that rhetoric did start to shift more at this event; yes, there were still awards for individuals (and there’s no denying that there were some extraordinary people at both events), but the focus was much more predominantly on collaboration, partnerships and teams. Which, from the feedback I heard, made for a more thoughtful, real and mature series of outcomes.”

The cult of the social enterpreneur was introduced to the UK in the heady days of 1997 by the then Blairite think-tanker, Charles Leadbeater.

According to Leadbeater: “Social entrepreneurs are driven, ambitious leaders with great skills in communicating a mission inspiring staff, users and partners. In all these cases they have been capable of creating impressive schemes with virtually no resources.”

It’s too late in the day to revisit the argument about whether Leadbeater’s vision of social enterprise, had it been enacted in the UK, would’ve been a good thing or not – it’s sufficient to point out that only a tiny element of the itself still fairly limited social enterprise movement in the UK in 2010 is any way reflective of that vision.

There has been no significant growth in dynamic local community organisations lead by charismatic individuals during new Labour’s time in power. While their leading figures may or may not be personally charasmatic, the quietly effectively, professionally-managed organisations now at the forefront of the movement – such as HCT and GLL – are the antithesis of the wacky, dynamic self-starters that Leadbeater’s ideas (whether or not this was actually his intention) were used to promote.

Lots of community-based enterprises have started (or continued) over the past 13 years but most of the successful ones have been run by teams of hard-working pragmatists with moderate opinions of their own abilities.

The mythical social enterpreneurs with bags of charisma, self-belief and innovative ideas that no one else could possibly ever have thought of, coupled with the ability to actually deliver practically useful social outcomes, have never actually landed on planet earth but – such has been the utility of their fabled existence to politicians, and social enterprise lobbyists and support organisations –  their cult has continued to be promoted.

With the result that too many shouty people who want to save the world (then bend it to their will) with a game-changing website have been attracted to social enterprise and too many thoughtful, unassuming people who are prepared to work hard to make the world a better place have been turned off.

New Labour’s time in office has been a mixed bag but ‘the cult of the social entrepreneur’  encapsulated all that was bad about their tenure. Now they’re on their way out, the social enterprise movement will benefit immensely if they take that lump of egotistical bullshit with them, then maybe we can get on with some positive social change.


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6 responses to “Death of the cult of the social entrepreneur?

  1. Marianne Whitfield

    “… too many thoughtful, unassuming people who are prepared to work hard to make the world a better place have been turned off” … and unfortunatley, never a truer word has been spoken.


  2. Was thinking of a certain ‘nut’ throughout this post hahaha


  3. Anonymous

    The social entrepreneur-hate-campaign is driven by (1) ignorance; (2) envy or bitterness by some individuals or groups who feels, rightly or wrongly, that they also deserve recognition and publicity and (3) by disgruntled individuals who were unsuccessful in obtaining Ashoka, Skoll or Schwab fellowships. The world needs the Muhammad Yunus’ – individuals who, through their success, promotes the concept of social enterprise. In fact social enterprise is piggy-backing on the sucess of the social entrepreneurs in their midst.


  4. beanbagsandbullsh1t

    I’m not generally inclined to approve anonymous comments but found this quite interesting.

    I don’t think it’s all directly relevant to the UK scene – while I’ve heard of the organisations mentioned, I wasn’t even aware that they ran fellowships – but the question about whether social enterprise is promoted by the success of individuals is good one.

    I think individuals and their stories are important. Social enterprise as an idea definitely benefits from positive coverage of the people who are involved in it and their motivations.

    That’s a different matter from the idea of individual social entrepreneurs as charismatic leaders, miraculously solving social problems by the force of their personality.

    I don’t know much about US social enterprise but in the UK that idea of the heroic individual social entrepreneur has been a very damaging one.


  5. Pingback: It’s not magic | Beanbags and Bullsh!t

  6. Donny L

    Thank goodness for this blog (recently discovered). I currently live in Canada but back to the UK in a few months. I was beginning to believe that Canadian social enterprise was a cult created by well heeled baby boomers.

    I’ve been to many conferences on ‘Social Enterprise’ in Canada and it was until my third that I got to hear of any actual examples, beyond the usual rhetoric and touchy-feely presentations.

    I did get to see a lot of people earning six-figure incomes as self proclaimed experts. Heck, I was even called a ‘Social Entrepreneur’ by a few people. ‘

    Quite frankly the term terrifies me in Canada. I’m really glad to see that the UK has a sense of reality on this important subject. Thank you for a brilliant blog.


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