Learning from experience – part one

In a comment on my previous blog on the pipeline of bad ideas in social enterprise, Nick Temple offers a partial defence of the actions of social entrepreneurship support organisations, noting that their work often involves supporting ‘biographical social entrepreneurs’ – people for whom a social entrepreneurship is a response to personal experience.

In another recent blog, Tackling Heropreneurship, Daniela Papi-Thornton of Skoll Centre, makes some points similar to mine but also bemoans the fact that she has: “watched more and more students focus their ventures on problems they haven’t lived, such as building an app for African farmers when the founding team has neither farmed nor been to Africa“.

They’re not wrong. There is no question that personal experience is important in social enterprise. The challenge is to understand how and why it’s important. The post is part of a series of (at least) two and the other one will be more positive!

How does it feel?

Nick makes the point that the fact that biographical social entrepreneurs have: ‘experienced the problem they are/were trying to solve… in theory at least, gives them some understanding of the problem’.

At a basic level, this is self-evidently correct.

If you are (or have previously been) long-term unemployed you know how it feels to be long-term unemployed – in the sense that you know what long-term unemployment feels like for you.

If you have a diagnosis of a mental health condition, you know what it’s like for you to live with that condition.

In both of these examples (and many others) people with experience are experts in their own experience but there are at least two fundamental questions that this experience  does not (in itself) answer:

  1. To what extent does someone’s specific personal experience enable them to usefully understand a wider social problem beyond that specific personal experience?
  2. In the event that the answer is ‘to a great extent’ – to what extent does that understanding enable them to use their understanding to solve a problem for enough paying customers (including grant funders and donors) to create a viable business?

In terms of question 1, there are many factors that determine whether someone’s experiences enable them to understand other people’s experiences and the practical challenges flowing from them.

One is where that specific experience sits within that individual’s wider life experience: Has the long-term unemployed person (Nigel/Nigella) ever had a job? Are they unable to get a job at all – or unable to get a job in their chosen profession? Do they have dependents?

Another is where Nigel/Nigella’s experience sits within a wider social and economic context: Is the problem that Nigel/Nigella is unable to get one of the jobs that are available in their local area? Or are there no jobs in the local area to apply for?

The point is not that one experience of any of the possible permutations is more valid or real than another but that the relevance of those experiences to the creation of a social enterprise to ‘solve the problem’ will vary greatly.

More bluntly (and this may seem obvious but experience from the world of social entrepreneurship support suggests it isn’t) the fact that Nigel/Nigella has failed to get a job over a long period of time – either at all, in a particular industry or based on a series of specific challenges – doesn’t (in itself) qualify them to help other people get jobs.

Nigel/Nigella’s experience of failing to get a job may give them a strong desire to start a social enterprises to tackle unemployment, along with some ideas about services that might be helpful. It doesn’t (in itself) mean that those services are likely to work.

In other cases, the specific nature of someone’s experience may mean they just don’t know how that experience feels for someone else.

This is my truth, don’t tell me yours

Once again this maybe be because of their personal situation. So while that fact that Oliver/Olivia’s diagnosis with a mental health condition was followed by immediate specialist treatment at a private hospital doesn’t make their experience of that condition any less real, it does limit their ability to immediately understand the situation of someone who is currently waiting 18 months for an NHS appointment to help them live with the same condition.

In other instances, one person’s experience may make them less rather more able to empathise with other people who experience a similar situation in a different way.

For example, Oliver/Olivia may have found that, for them, medication is not helpful but the combination of meditation and exercise enables them to manage their condition successfully.

That perspective is valid and relevant but, if setting up a social enterprise with a general aim of helping people live with their condition, it needs to be understood as an individual experience – which may or may not be other people’s experience too.

A big danger for ‘biographical entrepreneurs’ is that they risk not being able to distinguish between their individual personal experience and ‘THE TRUTH’ about a social problem – and their social enterprise ends up as a mission to impose their truth on other people (and prevents them for understanding whether/why other people might need/use a product or service they offer).

While question 1 break down into lots of other (more complicated) questions, it’s ultimately the easier one to answer. You can use your personal experience as the impetus to develop a broader understanding of a social problem beyond your personal experience if you want to.

Sounds great, who’s paying?

What it comes to question 2, the answer is shorter but the problem is bigger.

In his latest book, The Frugal Innovator, Charles Leadbeater notes that: “An innovation is only successful if it can answer several questions and risks: will the technology and the product work?; will consumers want it?; can it be made reliably at scale and can a business make money from it? An innovation can fail at each of these stages.

Experience-based understanding of ‘the problem’ might in some circumstances enable a social entrepreneur to answer one or both Leadbetter’s first two questions but it’s highly unlikely to provide answers for the third and fourth ones.

Nigel/Nigella’s personal experience might provide the starting point for a great idea for a service that will help long term unemployed people get a job but it’s unlikely to be a significant factor in whether their social enterprise can generate income as a Work Programme sub-contractor.

Oliver/Olivia’s personal experience might enable them to come up with a great scheme that supports those who want to manage their mental health condition through meditation and exercise to do so, it won’t help them work out what combination of grant-funding, NHS contracts and self-funding payments is necessary to make the numbers add up.

The mistake that social entrepreneurship supporters have often made – either explicitly or through omission –  is to assume that personal experience of a social problem inherently represents meaningful research into the market conditions for solutions to that problem. It doesn’t.

None of this is intended to suggest that being a ‘biographical social entrepreneur’ is a bad thing but we need to think more carefully about what it takes to get from the impetus to solve a problem based on personal experience to a viable social enterprise.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Learning from experience – part one

  1. David, If you represent an oppressed community, like the Black feminist group Incite!, you’ll know much is weighed against you. It was they , not Peter Buffet who first said that “The rrevolution will not be funded beyond the nonprofit industrial complex” referring to the philanthropic foundations which have mushroomed under neoliberalism.

    For our late founder, though not myself, poverty and homelessness were a personal experience and were still when I joined him as he fasted for economic rights and a living wage, in 2003.

    Before this happened as a businessman and volunteer on Clinton’s re-election committee, he’d argued that a new form of capitalism was needed to tackle the problems that neoliberal economics has caused.

    He shared his concept of business operating for social benefit free to use in the public domain.

    When our business plan was introduced to the social enterprise connunity in 2004 it warned “it is completely predictable that it should be only a matter of time until uprisings become sufficient to imperil an entire nation or region of the world”. As you know those uprisings included Syria and Ukraine where his life ended.

    Charles Leadbeater is among those who saw the problem of capitalism much later in the day. As has Pamela Hartigan of the Skoll Centre who now says “social entrepreurship is a distraction” Like Leadbeater, she does not seem to be aware of those who trod the path before her.

    http://www.p-ced.com/1/node/483

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  2. Today, it’s Dr Fenella Porter from Ruskin College who asks whether business can really benefit the people. I’m bound to say yes, with all the arguments we’ve made for “changing the way business is done

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