With another year coming to an end, it’s time to consider our new year’s resolutions and for much of the social enterprise/social entrepreneurship movement, the new year will herald a commitment to join the mainstream (whatever that means).
At this autumn’s Emerge Conference, Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for (er… ) Social Entrepreneurship led the charge to ditch ‘social entrepreneurship’ entirely. Pioneers Post reports Hartigan expounding the view that to use the terms such as ‘social enterprise’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’ is to: “continue to dichotomise the commercial and the social spheres” when really: “all commercial ventures have to be accountable for the social and environmental impacts they are having and all social ventures have to be financially sustainable in some way.”
Readers who are not immediately clear as to why the latter statement tells us anything much one way or another about whether we shouldn’t or shouldn’t run social enterprises, or call ourselves social entrepreneurs, may find a (slightly) clearer take in Hartigan’s blog length explanation of her position – written for Oxfam last year.
Hartigan explains that: “I do believe that transformational systems change will never be achieved on a massive scale by non-profit organizations or even by well-meaning ‘hybrids’. I very much believe that the way forward is through business.”
It’s hardly an unarguable fact that a business, whether self-defining as non-profit/’social’ or not, is necessarily the most effective vehicle for social transformation in any given situation – particularly where the alternatives include some or all of campaigning, legislation and individual or collective behaviour change – but assuming we accept that the biggest social problems do need a business-led solution we’re still left with the question of what ‘the way forward’ might be.
Less profit on purpose
The answer, apparently, is the concept of ‘reasonable profits’. As Hartigan outlines: “The key to sustainable capitalism is reasonable profits as opposed to maximizing profits. In the current system, a segment of society is trying to maximize profits without concern for the impact on the well being of the society as a whole, while another segment of social organizations have to deal with the fall out.”
It’s pretty abstract stuff and it’s anyone’s guess what the wider social impact of ‘reasonable profits’ (however defined) might be in any given industry. Should (not)social entrepreneurs doing their (not)social entrepreneurship within mainstream businesses turn their sword of reasonableness primarily on gross profit or net profit? Does transformation come through selling people stuff reasonably cheap or paying reasonable wages?
Whatever Hartigan’s vision for good business actually means, none of it gives an inkling of what Hartigan would actually like social entrepreneurs and/or people running social enterprises to do (even if they broadly agree with her analysis).
For example, one of my social enterprise roles is as publisher of a local community newspaper. I’m under no illusions about the fact that I have less power to deliver transformational social change in this role than if I were the boss of News Corporation. As soon as I get the News Corporation job, I’ll be happy to try to put a reasonable profits policy in place. But does Hartigan mean that, right now, I should stop running our social enterprise newspaper – making some positive impact in one area of east London – and concentrate full time on persuading Rupert Murdoch to give me the top job?
Fortunately, not everyone in the social entrepreneurship support industry has given up on the idea of social entrepreneurship entirely. Over at Unltd (The Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs), they’ve launched a new strategy: ‘Going Mainstream: how can social entrepreneurship break through?‘
Unfortunately, the publication is a ‘strategy’ only in a broad sense. The conceptualisation and analysis of the problem – the question of why social entrepreneurship is not mainstream already – is apparently restricted to the results of a recent survey of (433) social entrepreneurs that revealed strong support for some abstract statements:
- 96% Social entrepreneurs have huge potential to do good
- 94% Social entrepreneurs need to be taken seriously as businesses
- 87% Social entrepreneurship needs to be better understood
The challenges preventing these abstract desires becoming reality are (according to the 389 social entrepreneurs who answered that part of the survey):
- 71% Finding sustainable revenue streams
- 71% Making a living from a social venture
- 60% Getting access to the right kind of finance
- 59% Finding routes in to sell to the public sector
- 52% Getting access to the right talent and skills
It is interesting that most social entrepreneurs can’t sell stuff and (as a result) can’t make a living from what they’re doing. It’s also interesting that Unltd haven’t done any research to try and find out why (or, if they have, don’t mention it) – particularly as in recent years they apparently have had plenty of time and resources to promote the decidedly niche ‘profit-with-purpose‘ model.
The apparent absence of any analysis or understanding of how social entrepreneurs opinions and experiences relate to what’s actually happening in the markets they’re seeking to enter is a significant barrier to any attempts Unltd might make to come up with practical ideas for change.
The right platitudes
On that basis, it’s no surprise that what follows is a cheap buffet of universal support organisation platitudes – Realising Potential; Connecting To Great Support; Maximising Impact – offering no meaningful indication as to how Unltd post-2016 will be different to Unltd pre-2016.
The sad thing is that while the leaders of world and UK social entrepreneurship wallow in waffle, the questions about the role of social entrepreneurs – from those working as part of unregistered, volunteer-led groups in rural church halls to those with big jobs at big companies – remain largely unanswered.
In the UK, despite huge resources going into support organisations, we don’t know enough about what kind of support social entrepreneurs need:
- to enter public service markets
- to provide service fillings gaps left by public sector cuts
- to create social enterprises to succeed in mainstream markets
- to work within mainstream businesses to create transformational change
And, with a few honourable exceptions, we’re not very good at using what do know to inform what support organisations actually do. Time to stop waffling and get on with it.