Beginnings

Last week, I was interviewed by a PHD student whose PHD is focused on social entrepreneurship – what it is and why people do it. He asked me how I came to co-found a social enterprise in the first place. While my answer at the time probably wasn’t very interesting, considering the question did get me thinking about what it was that first started me off on my journey towards my current position as a 32-year-old grizzled veteran of the UK social enterprise scene.

It all began when, as an 18 year-old A-Level student, I got a phone call from a bloke who was putting together a TV show about urban arts. At the time, I was an up-and-coming performance poet, and the caller had got my details from The Poetry Society who’d thought I might be interested in appearing in his TV show.

At a subsequent meeting with said bloke to discuss the TV show, which had so far reached the point of being a four-page outline of an idea for a TV show which might at some point be pitched to a production company, we ended up having a broad discussion about some of the things that were wrong with the world.

During that discussion I happened to mention how ridiculous it was that there were, at the time, more empty properties in the UK than there were registered homeless people. Surely something could be done to connect the homeless people with empty homes.

It just so happened that, as well as attempting to launch a TV show about urban arts (and working full time as a social worker), my new friend was also in the process of launching a charity that aimed to raise money and distribute it to community organisations to enable those organisations to renovate empty properties so that people could live in them. As I was clearly interested in the subject, it made sense that I should join the board.

While Make a Home, which became a registered charity in 1999, never defined itself as a social enterprise, it was attempting to provide an enterprising solution to a social problem. The founder shunned the usual charitable start-up route of seeking grant-funding to employ a paid worker and put together a board of trustees which was an eclectic mix of investment bankers, community activists, public sector workers, and people working in the music industry.

The plan, at least for the first few years, was to deliver the charity’s mission entirely on a voluntary basis by raising money from pop concerts and corporate marketing budgets. Why didn’t this plan work? Two of the reasons are hinted at in Matthew Cain’s very good recent blog post about social enterprise failure. Make a Home’s founder was a combination of ‘The lovestruck founder’ and ‘The wrong sort of founder’.

He was unquestionably the right sort of founder to bring together a disparate and, in many cases, talented and well connected group of people, and persuade them to give up considerable amounts of their spare time in the interests of his cause. Unfortunately, the passion, drive and independent spirit that enabled him to sell the idea of the organisation to both trustees and other potential supporters also prevented him from plotting a pragmatic course towards achieving the organisations goals (or from stepping back far enough to allow others to do so).

We spent meeting after meeting having broadly similar, largely hypothetical, discussions about creating the right business plan and board structure to raise huge amounts of money, and which bands would be the most appropriate headliners for our hypothetical fundraising gigs, combined with some discussions about the theoretical priorities for spending that money once we’d raised it.

The discussion that was always too painful to have (properly) was the discussion about what we (as the 7 or 8 very busy people sitting in the room at the time) could realistically, practically do over the two months before the next meeting to take the organisation forward.

Make a Home no longer exists. While it never achieved its grander ambitions to provide £millions to organisations renovating empty properties, it did manage to raise and distribute over £20,000 to organisations which did play a small but valuable role in helping some of those organisations to get started and others to keep going.

While the organisation’s failures were mostly down to execution, it was also (more or less) the right idea at the wrong time. Unfortunately, the New Labour government was more interested in knocking empty properties down that it was in renovating them, while the current Coalition government seems to be taking a different approach. And my friend and fellow social enterprise blogger, Rob Greenland, is at the heart of new, well targeted socially entrepreneurial intervention.

For me, though, the Make a Home experience was vital in turning me into the social entrepreneur I am today. It taught me that bringing about positive social change is both about dreaming big dreams and practising the art of the possible. That you don’t have to assume that the experts in government and large national charities know what they’re doing (or why they’re doing it). That if you see a social problem, there’s nothing to stop you getting together with some of your fellow citizens to try and solve it.

Obviously, you don’t always succeed.

Commercial Break:

There’s two exciting (free) events coming in the next few weeks that readers might be interested:

Thursday July 18th – Social Spider CIC’s mental health magazine, One in Four, celebrates its fifth birthday.

Wednesday July 24th – Social Enterprise Question Time – organised by Social Spider CIC in partnership with hosts, School for Social Entrepreneurs, a panel including Chris White MP, answer social entrepreneurs’ questions on social value.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Beginnings

  1. Thanks for the name check. It was interesting to read your Make a Home story. It’s fascinating how valuable close experience of a start-up can be for successful entrepreneurs. It’s not often enough you read advice which says ‘if you want to be a great entrepreneur, first work for someone else’s start-up’

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  2. Beanbags admin

    Yes. There’s lots of advice about learning from your mistakes but no so much about learning from other people’s mistakes!

    One of the interesting things for me is how many of social ventures I’ve been involved with that haven’t worked – there’s at least a couple more still to write about – have ultimately been proved to be pretty good ideas.

    The execution has been a key factor in their lack of success (as with most unsuccessful businesses) but when it comes to the timing element (which is also a factor for all businesses) the public policy climate is often particularly important.

    I think there is sometimes a tendency for social entrepreneurs who (rightly) want to be politically independent to think that being politically independent is that same thing as ignoring the political situation.

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  3. David, Some years ago a book ‘The Wrong Stuff: Flying on the edge of disaster’ gave a test pilot’s perspective on how the qualities of machismo and independence which had been considered “the right stuff” proved far from ideal when it came to the collaborative endeavour of commercial airline flying.

    The same might be said of transitioning from being an innovator to the collaborative nature of running a social enterprise,

    The issue of homelessness is something I was dragged into, by a man who had the perspective of having lived on the streets who was fasting from a tent at the time for the US government to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This as I would later find out, has powerful and well funded opponents like Walmart and the Koch Brothers.

    In 2003, I was forwarding progress messages to the senator of North Carolina, sent by email from a public library and converted to fax. I would later do the same to make contact with the Council on Foreign Relations.

    My homeless correspondent was remarkable astute when it came to politics and we’d later see John Edwards run for President with a challenge to global poverty which were very much aligned with what I’d sent him in 2004:

    “Currently, I’ve been invited on exactly those grounds to lecture in the former Soviet Union. Maybe I will, maybe not. But for now, my allegiance is with you, getting you into the White House, just as I promised quite some time ago.

    For now, all you need to know is about people-centered economic development, a.k.a. social enterprise. You’re in position to hook up with some of the finest minds in the world to implement it nationwide in the US, and the opposition hasn’t a clue – simply because they do not and cannot think along such lines.

    Go figure.”

    http://www.p-ced.com/1/node/132

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