Over the years I’ve attended quite a few events where people in the process of starting new social ventures* ‘pitch’ their idea to a panel and/or wider audience. And on several occasions I’ve been one of those people. Even when allowing for our individual pitching abilities, many of these ideas are transparently absurd (at least, to everybody else).
The stereotypical starting point (type one) for wannabe social entrepreneurs – even once they’ve had enough absurd ideas to be tagged as a ‘serial social entrepreneur’ – is that they have an idea that offers significant social impact but doesn’t work as a business.
They want to do x thing for x group of people, there’s at least a plausible suggestion that x group of people might want it and it might really be useful but x group of people have no money to pay for it. So the type one social entrepreneur faces the (often insurmountable) challenge of finding *some other way* of paying for it.
At the other end of the spectrum (type two), there are nice people who want to start a business doing something they’re good at and, because they’re nice people, they feel compelled to contort their business plan in a bizarre way to include what seems to outside observers to be an entirely unrelated social element.
So fictional social venture ‘Pizza, Love and Understanding’ is a pizza parlour but it’s going to deliver real social change for ‘disadvantaged groups (specific group – tbc)’ by using the profits to pay for them (the ‘disadvantaged groups’) to take part in workshops which will generate art with a strong social message to be displayed on the wall of the pizza parlour.
And because it’s important that disadvantaged groups are recognised as real artists they will be paid for their art (possibly in pizza).
Type two is mostly ignored as there’s no point wasting energy being rude to well intentioned people who will (in most cases) soon recognise their mistake and get on with trying to run a pizza parlour. That’s a good result. Pizza parlours that sell good pizza and pay decent wages are a good thing.
Extreme basket weaving
There is a type three, though. People who, once again with the best of intentions, find themselves pursuing an idea for a social venture that combines the absence of a business model with a lack of clear potential for social impact.
Are you building an online one-stop-shop for young people who want to bring communities together through the medium of extreme basket weaving?
Is the business model ‘corporate sponsorship’?
If so, look away now.
Once again, while the real life equivalents of fictional social venture ‘ComYOUnityBasKITcase’ are far less actively stupid, the basic recipe is the same.
Ingredient one – something you (at best) know how to do well or (at worst) have recently heard of
Ingredient two – a positive but non-specific and essentially unrelated social aim
Ingredient three – a broad category of funder/customer that you think has lots of money to spend on good things
Method – Attend pitching event. Get a grant from Unltd. Don’t sell anything. Attend conference to complain that funders/investors/customers never fund/invest in/buy innovative ideas. Repeat for 1 to 5 years.
I can’t say for sure whether type three social venture ideas are becoming more prevalent but there is certainly a strong, well established pipeline and it’s not clear that social entrepreneurship support organisations have a humane strategy for putting them (the ideas, not the people who have them) out of their misery.
Youth hostelling with Chris Eubank
As Alan Partridge memorably demonstrated, some of the worst ideas (many of which the advent of digital TV has since brought to fruition) are motivated by the toxic mix of panic and desperation. But, while parody TV hosts need to have terrible ideas, aspiring social entrepreneurs don’t.
There is another route. That is to start by putting some time and effort into researching the social change you want to make. It’s not necessary for all social entrepreneurs to single-handedly solve a problem for the whole world in the Ashoka style but it is necessary to solve a problem at some level for someone.
The best way to do that is to work out what the problem is. What annoys me most about the prevalence of stupid ideas for social ventures is that it’s not as if we have a shortage of problems for clever, socially-focused people to take a look at.
How do we look after people who are living longer but need additional help to have a good quality of live in old age?
How do we support people with severe and enduring mental health problems when institutional treatment is both unaffordable and undesirable?
How do we connect with the young people who would really like to weave baskets in an extreme way to help their communities, and give them the online tools they need to do it?
Creating a successful business to address a social need is really difficult but working out where to start is not as difficult as some of the organisations theoretically supporting social entrepreneurship and social innovation in the UK currently make it look.
If you want to start venture (and you live in a major metropolitan) it’s virtually impossible to avoid support designed to develop your basic business skills – and plenty of support for (often, small and unproven) social ventures to ‘scale-up’.
There’s very little work being done to help social entrepreneurs actually become skilled and knowledgable in the things they’re trying to do – or to put people who are skilled and knowledgable together with people who’d just like to do something good to see if they could do something together.
In that context, it’s not surprising we end up with so much ephemeral tosh and so few successful social ventures addressing real social need.
Keep it stupid
None of this means it’s desirable to discourage people from pursuing really stupid ideas for social ventures.
Lots of great (or, at least, quite good) ideas emerge from the dregs of really stupid ones. Pizza, Love and Understanding’s incongruously worthy arts workshops might ultimately be the starting point for the creation of an arts organisation that does create some great art and/or some positive social change while not needing to be connected to a pizza parlour.
And the social entrepreneur who created ComYOUnityBasKITcase might come out the other side with the hard-earned practical experience they need to do much something more useful next time.
It’s not social entrepreneurs and our stupid ideas that’s the problem, it’s the dearth of support and funding to help us develop the knowledge, and find the time and space to move beyond them.
*In this context, a ‘social venture’ could be a charity, social enterprise or other any organisation/activity initiated with the aim of make the world a better place (at least partly) by selling stuff