Mythbusting: lots people want to start a social enterprise

… The problem with these kinds of optimistic figures about the enthusiasm for social enterprise is not that they’re incorrect – as far as I know, they are correct – but that there’s a misalignment between what they mean and they arguments that they’re used to make …” – my latest mythbuster for The Guardian‘s Social Enterprise Network.


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2 responses to “Mythbusting: lots people want to start a social enterprise

  1. Thanks David for highlighting the challenge of obtaining reliable data on the extent of interest in social entrepreneurship. The Guardian article is closed for comments already so I hope you don’t mind me posting here instead.

    UnLtd would be the first to acknowledge that not all nascent social entrepreneurial activity as recorded by GEM will lead to the establishment and survival of viable social enterprises. We define social entrepreneurs as people who have the determination and commitment to change the world around them – not all of whom choose to do so through a social enterprise. As you say, there is an inevitable gap between people stating an intention to start a social enterprise and actually doing so, which the RBS Tracker usefully seeks to unpack. And not all social enterprise start-ups survive and go on to thrive. It’s not just about starting, it’s about starting well.

    Cliff’s point that specialist social entrepreneurship support agencies such as UnLtd are only currently able to reach about 2000 people directly each year was a recognition of the need for alternative ways to deliver quality support to where it’s needed. We’re increasingly focusing on helping others to deliver support rather than doing it ourselves. For example, we’re exploring the potential of existing social entrepreneurs to provide peer-to-peer support. We’ve been working with 56 higher education institutions and 27 further education institutions to help them to find, fund and support social entrepreneurs within their staff and student bodies. We’re engaging with local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships on how they can unleash the entrepreneurial energies of residents to meet the needs of their local communities. Our Star People programme is working with community organisations to reach out to social entrepreneurs in the 150 Big Local areas – many of whom would have been unlikely to come directly to UnLtd for support. Interestingly, this work is identifying social entrepreneurs in the sort of numbers which suggest that the 250,000 estimate may not be far off the mark – and it is helping people to shift from intention to action.


  2. Beanbags admin

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not disputing that the GEM figure is correct. I would be surprised is 250,000 new people wanted to start a new social venture every year – amounting to 2.5 million different people over ten years – but that’s not the major point.

    My key concern with Cliff’s statement is the implication that there’s 248,000 people in the UK at anyone time who are the right specialist support intervention away from setting up a useful and/or sustainable social venture.

    Some of my best friends currently work in social enterprise support and many more of them did during the New Labour boom years but I think it would be a major challenge for anyone to look at the 2007-2011 period and make a serious argument for a direct correlation between available resources for social enterprise support – and successful new social enterprise activity.

    At times, it seemed as if the social enterprise support sector and the government were working together to rival the EU butter mountain with a mountain of business plans that would never be enacted. Support seemed to expand to fill the demand from government for support to be taking place rather than to meet demand from social entrepreneurs for specific help.

    It would be interesting to know how many thousands of potential social entrepreneurs actually got bored and gave up because some consultant – with the best of intentions – told them it was really, really, important to think carefully about the correct structure for the organisation they might eventually set up before doing anything at all to take their idea forward. NB. It isn’t.

    None of that’s intended as a criticism of the initiatives that Unltd’s currently taking forward. All of which sound positive and a couple of which I’d be keen to be involved with.

    My underlying concern is that by promoting these kind of massive figures about people who thinking of starting social enterprises, we risk promoting responses based on volume of support activity rather than utility and – as pointed out in the original article – that we over-estimate the potential for even really good support to solve the biggest problems social entrepreneurs face.


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