New research commissioned by The School for Social Entrepreneurs(SSE)* reveals that social entrepreneurs seeking training: ‘overwhelmingly want to hear from expert practitioners from their own sector‘.
Survey respondents reasoning is that: “They value the hard-won experience of someone who has already walked the road they are following, who understands the particular challenges faced by social enterprises, and who can offer grounded, practical advice and guidance.”
On the other hand: “Policy experts and coaches were the least valued contributors to a course.”
As someone with over ten years ‘hard-won experience’ of running a social enterprise, I can only hope this is enough to neutralize the effects of my policy expertise. Either way, I certainly wouldn’t deny social entrepreneurs a survey-based opportunity to put the boot into those who choose the moderate regular salaries available for pontificating about and supporting social enterprise, over the poverty and uncertainty usually on offer to those who actually do it.
What I would question is whether social entrepreneurs should be seeking to learn primarily from people who understand ‘the particular challenges faced by social enterprises’. As a fellow of SSE, I’m a big fan of their use of ‘witness sessions’ where students have the opportunity to listen to an experienced social entrepreneurs talking about have they’ve done what they’ve done and got to where they are – before asking follow-up questions on the practicalities. It’s both useful and inspiring to learn from the experiences of other social entrepreneurs. But if you want to run a business that’s successful in its own sector while also being a social enterprise, it’s equally important to learn from people who aren’t social entrepreneurs.
Like most survey respondents, my social enterprise has an annual training budget of under £200. £35 of the £50 we’ve spent on training so far this year went on paying to attend an event on ‘publishing an independent magazine’. We publish one magazine and are looking to publish some more, so it was very useful to find out about how other people running magazines without corporate backing are making decisions about, amongst other things, print vs. digital and choosing their distribution models.
There are some particular challenges we face due to running an independent magazine as a social enterprise – for example, we have actively chosen to produce a magazine with a target market of readers who are unattractive to advertisers – but these are mostly aspects of our business that we know a lot about already.
There is great value in social entrepreneurs getting together to congratulate each other on successes, and commiserate with each other on the difficulties of running a social enterprise but it’s equally important to get together with, and learn from the experiences of, other people in our professional sectors to work out how to be as good as we possibly can at the stuff that we actually do.
There’s also plenty to learn from other people who aren’t social entrepreneurs and don’t work in our particular professional sector but do have experience of dealing with similar practical challenges to those that we face. The most useful of the various social enterprise mentoring experiences I’ve had was a mentoring relationship with someone who worked a large private sector company involved in public sector outsourcing. They provided invaluable practical tips on project development and negotiating consultancy rates.
Survey responses like this point to the fact that many social entrepreneurs regard and value social enterprise as distinct approach to doing business. That’s not a bad thing in itself (it’s a good thing) but if we aspire to being successful businesses that deliver positive change, then it’s important we avoid retreating into a ghetto of smugness oblivious to what we can learn from successful, inspirational people operating in the rest of the economy.
*I was involved in one of the focus groups that fed into this research