The history of social innovation and enterprise (an impossible task)

Our intern, Thor, who you will have read blogging here from time to time, has been looking into the history of this movement as part of his work / project while he’s with us. Which reminded me of this post that I wrote for another blog some time ago. Thought it might be of interest….:

It’s quite a common question to those of us who work in the world of social innovation and entrepreneurship: who was the first social entrepreneur? Or, when was the first social invention? The obvious answer, of course, is to say that such people (and ideas) have occurred throughout the ages. People like Robert Owen, Florence Nightingale, Gandhi, Michael Young (see here also) and the Rochdale Pioneers: social entrepreneurs and innovators one and all. But that only takes us a couple of centuries back: what about those social innovations that are so fundamental now that we don’t even think of them as such: the school, law courts, democracy. The latter is famously dated back to Athens (around 510 BC), but law courts and schools date back to 2400 and 2500 BC in Sumeria. The names of those forward-thinking Sumerians are sadly lost in the sands of time, but the campaign for their recognition starts here.

It does help put today’s work in perspective though. The term "social entrepreneur" may not have come into regular usage until the 1970s and 80s (its first use is believed to be in 1958, according to the mighty Wikipedia), but it’s fairly evident that entrepreneurial people wanting to use their skills and traits to make social change have existed for many centuries. Lecturing charities today on how they should start to trade and become self-sufficient seems less relevant when Oxfam started the first charity shop back in 1947 (and they were only copying the Salvation Army and Red Cross who ran second hand clothing shops before that). Similarly, pointing to the co-op movement (which was enshrined in law in the UK in the 1850s and 60s) as a new dawn ignores the mutualism prevalent in Europe at the time, and the craft guilds and friendly societies which existed since the 11th century.

Perhaps this helps make a wider point about (social) innovation and how we should think of it: not innovation in the sense of brand new Eureka ideas (innovation as novelty) but as a continuous process of refinement and incremental improvement, with the occasional bound forward. We are building on the ideas and actions of those who came before, responding to their innovations, and building upon them. But we are also responding to the problems and challenges that some of their innovations have created: advances in medicine mean a growing, ageing population; advances in transport have pollution as a by-product. This helps explain why those who have said (at various points in time), "everything has been invented", are utterly wrong: the need for innovation, particularly social innovation, will never go away.

As John Cage, the US composer puts it, "I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas; I’m frightened of the old ones".

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Virtual Social Networking, a blessing or a curse?

Here at SSE we find the internet quite useful and employ our blogging skills quite routinely, as you can see. There are countless tools to choose from, web 2.0 or not: along with the blog, we utilise e-newsletters, the facebook group, online resources, an extranet, and more recently an online bookstore. As Brett Bonfield reported recently however, virtual social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, Bebo etc) can both be a blessing and a pain to non-profits. Bonfield gives some hints…

Who is likely to get the most value out of social networking sites? To
answer this question, Idealware spoke to a number of nonprofit
technologists working with social networking tools. We searched beyond
the success stories to discover tales of only middling success, or even
of disappointment. What resulted were two sets of guidelines: first,
how to know if social networking isn’t right for you and second, some
of the ways that social networking might benefit your organization.

Bonfield provides a quite useful check-list to go through if you are in doubt if using the web is valuable to your organisation. It should come as no surprise that not all social entrepreneurs find networking sites online helpful, as using the resources correctly is a skill-set that constantly needs updating and development. More importantly perhaps, not all groups that social entrepreneurs target have access to the internet nor find use in online features.

While online sites are good for networking and information sharing, it is sometimes hard to see the obvious benefit a social entrepreneurial organisation can gather from the web. Some SEs base their whole operations online, while others ignore its usefulness completely, finding other ways to get by. As a whole though, it is hard to get away from the fact that tools like blogging, e-news letters, resource sites, facebook groups are very convenient for the social enterprise sector, with their low cost and high (potential) reach.

Could virtual networking work to you org’s benefit? I recommend you take a look at the check list!

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Schwab Award (UK): Belu Water wins

SSE attended the Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year award at the British Museum   Monday night to hear Reed Paget of Belu Water be crowned winner of that title for the first time in the UK. The Independent, the competition’s media partner, reports it in this article. It was a slightly curious event, with a relatively small audience (50 or so?) in a very rarefied setting; Pamela Hartigan, who is the driving force behind Schwab, couldn’t make it because she was ill, and I think she was missed as someone to provide a uniting thread for the event.

Nevertheless, if social entrepreneurship had glitterati, they were out in force: chief execs of UnLtd, Ashoka, CAN, Training for Life, Big Invest, Big Issue, Eden Project, The Hub, and so forth. Most interesting conversation for me was to find out about one of the nominees, Matt Scott from Cosmos Ignite Innovations. Check out the website; it’s a great innovation.

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The importance of a citizen base

In my second full week with the SSE I’ve become increasingly aware of the many SSE Fellows who are out there, still keeping their projects sustainable and still causing positive change. On the tube this morning I was reading the Global Ideas Bank’s  "500 Ways to Change the World" and it really occurred to me how many different people have original solutions to various problems. While the book was edited and compiled by Nick Temple (Network Director at SSE) , the content was created by people who have recognized a fault  in  society and  have an idea  to fix it : ‘ordinary’ people suggesting social innovations.

The fact that so many want to help, and have such ideas, bodes well not only for the future of the SSE model, but also similar projects such as Ashoka’s much welcomed CBI Initiative. While not in Britain quite yet, (although on the way: it’s made it to France ) the Citizen Base Initiative seeks to alter "old funding strategies" and aims at helping citizen sector organisations to think differently about utilising resources, revenue streams etc, so that they can become more self-sufficient/more vibrant/less dependent on erratic funding. CBI tries to help the citizen sector break from traditional funding bodies and the state.

In essence, It’s about a wider view of stakeholders and how they (your organisation’s citizen base) can help access different types of resources, and help provide support. Very much in line with the view that social entrepreneurs create change through building networks, teams and movements, rather than as heroic individuals (see previous post on this subject)

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Funding, the arts, and balance.

Leafing through the weekend papers, there’s a lot of reporting going on of the Arts Council cuts in funding, and how they are affecting arts organisations in different ways. Admittedly, the bleeding-heart liberal, left-leaning, cappuccino–supping papers I read are arguably more likely to cover theatre types getting angry, but coverage on the whole shebang, on legal threats, on literature translation, and much more seems quite a lot over the course of two or three days. Where was the media when the Community Champions fund, one of the few providing grassroots support to individual community activists, was ditched? [the CC fund provided up to £2000 to over 10,000 people and had a pretty impressive record of outcomes and impact too].

The message also seems confused: one article lambasted the amount spent on opera, whilst another pointed out how a regional opera company was having its funding cut as an example of a poor decision. Ultimately, you have to feel some sympathy with the funders: their overall funding is increasingly constricted (falling lottery sales + Olympics), and there are often no "right" answers in these cases. Whilst calls for ‘arts’ people to run these funds have some validity, the nuts and bolts of effective grant-giving is as much about measurement, monitoring and administration as about informed decision-making.

Clearly, the process could have gone better (pre-Xmas with little response time) and could, possibly, have been more transparent. But the coverage has seemed quite unbalanced. This article, for example, with the calming title of "the final reckoning", details 6 arts organisations facing cuts. All worthy ca(u)ses, particularly the two theatres, it would seem to me. But none facing extinction, and some facing a reduction of around a fifth or sixth of their annual budget: substantial, but how many third sector organisations enter a financial year with all their funding and budget secured? Indeed, the experiences of these arts organisations will chime with many in the third sector….though the amount of coverage / campaigning in the media is markedly different. And where is the coverage of the organisations (700+) receiving an increase in funding from March, and the details of what greater impact they can now have?

From an SSE point of view, it’s clear that this could affect students and Fellows who work in the arts sphere, of whom there are quite a few. On the other hand, several current students in London, and (shortly) in Liverpool and East Midlands have places funded by a programme which is supported (amongst others) by the Arts Council. Crucial support at a key stage of their journey in changing people’s lives through the arts.

Swings, as they say, and roundabouts: and no black and white answers.

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