“It’s a cold, hard world love
these are cold hard times”
Lee Hazlewood, Cold Hard Times
Anyone in need of a reminder of the fact that cold, hard times are ahead for the social enterprise movement would only have needed to turn up at last week’s Voice 11 conference without a warm coat. Chilly conditions aside, though, David Ainsworth is right to point out that the stellar cast of government ministers turning up to the Social Enterprise Coalition‘s (generally well organised and positive) flagship event underlines the increasing close relationship between social enterprise and the government or, at least, the increasing extent to which the government is looking to social entrepreneurs to ride over the hill and save the nation from the catastrophe of cuts.
In this context it’s worth having a look at the role of the people who populate many of the stalls at social enterprise conferences, the group of organisations described by The Young Foundation in last August’s Nesta-funded report Growing Social Ventures as ‘social venture intermediaries’ (SVIs). Organisations that help social enterprises and social entrepreneurs to do social enterprise.
I came across Growing Social Ventures a few weeks ago after Alister Grimes of Rocket Science had a series of strong points to make about what he felt were its deficiencies. While it may be true that, overall, it’s not the best report that the esteemed Geoff Mulgan will ever put his name to, there’s lots of really interesting points to consider.
The one that amused me most was the apparent views of SVIs – at least those interviewed – on the people that they work with:
“There was a broad consensus amongst our interviewees that many of the current generation of social entrepreneurs are lacking in basic business skills. Intermediaries need now to focus on training the next generation of social entrepreneurs – bright, talented and ambitious young people who can learn to develop a basic business proposition and clear understanding of a social need.”- Growing Social Ventures, Page 8
Obviously as a paid-up member of the dim, talentless and unambitious current generation of social entrepreneurs, I’m hardly an impartial critic of that broad consensus but I hope my partiality doesn’t prohibit me from raising a few questions related to it.
My route to first of the question involves accept that part of the charge is correct. Surveying the market place in the 2005 and 2010 with the options of: (a) trying to start a social enterprise delivering positive social change for disadvantaged people and communities or (b) starting a consultancy offering support to other people trying to start a social enterprise delivering positive social change for disadvantaged people and communities, someone whose primary concern was paying the mortgage and getting home in time for dinner would probably not have chosen option (a).
So, my first question is, do the people who support social enterprise (those who were interviewed for this paper) think social entrepreneurs lack ‘basic business skills’ partly based on the fact that they made the recklessly idealistic decision to become social entrepreneurs (rather than intermediaries) in the first place?
My second question would be, if those SVIs that were surveyed really think many current social entrepreneurs have failed to pick up basic business skills in an unlikely-to-be-repeated era of government funding for SVIs to help social entrepreneurs to develop basic business skills, whose fault is that and what’s likely to happen now there’s no money left?
But a third – and probably more important question – this ‘consensus’ raises is ‘what basic business skills do social entrepreneurs actually need?’
I’m highly dubious of the idea that we need a generation of social entrepreneurs who are (primarily) really good at generating spreadsheets and writing business plans. That’s not because I believe the opposite – successful socially enterprising ventures do need spreadsheets with numbers that add up and business plans that make sense – but because we risk forgetting that these business skills need to complement rather than be a substitute for knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
Whether someone is trying to run a social enterprise, a corner shop, a council library or the church coffee morning, one way or another they either will or won’t be able to successfully work out (and continue to understand) what they’re providing, who (hopefully) they’re providing it to and how it’s going to be paid for. That’s the business skill that matters most but, given how difficult it is to get right and keep getting right, I’m not sure I’d refer to it as ‘basic’.
One of the biggest dangers in a climate where lots of things are going wrong and social enterprise is meant to make it all okay is that people will be poorly advised on whether whether what they do is more like a social enterprise (a socially useful business that can at least come somewhere near to sustaining itself through trading activity) or more like the church coffee morning (a positive small scale volunteer-led activity).
The challenge for SVIs is to support social entrepreneurs get a more refined sense of the practicalities what they’re doing so that – whether or not they need to form a social enterprise – they can either find an effective way of meeting a social need. I’m sure this is a challenge that most of them will rise to.