This week I had the opportunity to sit in
on one of the workshops with the SSE students. It was a great way to gain some
insight into how SSE’s model works in action. As children we are generally
encouraged to answer our own questions by experiencing something for ourselves.
The SSE workshops encourage students to answer their own questions by
experiencing something for themselves. By taking the time to question and
reflect we can intentionally change our behavior and recreate our reality.


Similar to the approach taken at the Center
for Experiential Learning
at St. Olaf, action learning is not just about
learning by doing: you must reflect on that experience in order to identify
exactly what it is you have learned, internalize the lessons and devise action
plans so you can take effective action in the future in a new situation,
however similar or different. Through practice, SSE students learn the ability
to ask the right questions at the right time and take action when necessary.


One of the interesting consequences of
action learning is that learning starts with not knowing. We only become open
to learning when we admit what we don’t know. There are no experts in these
situations, and therefore there may also not be any right answers. What is
important to note is that in situations where there are no right answers, it is
important to act in order to learn. This ability to act (or be prone to action)
is a fundamental quality of an entrepreneur. In an action-learning setting,
learning takes place by posing useful and discriminating questions in
conditions of uncertainty. Learning is about trying out unfamiliar ideas, and
involves risk and taking actions which might not work out.


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Economic downturn: diamond in the rough? New opportunities for change

It has been a busy first two weeks for me here at SSE. The staff members here at the school are all very dynamic individuals, each with much to add to the conversation surrounding social entrepreneurs. One of the interesting conversations I’ve picked up on here, is one about the challenge of finding funding for small to mid-size non-profit organizations. With the recent credit crunch, there will inevitably be cut backs in government spending, and the endowments of various foundations and investment trusts have already begun to subside. Many people suggest that the private sector should pick up the slack, but corporation’s are experiencing their own economic hardships, and are not likely to increase their financial support to the sector anytime soon. Meanwhile the competition among various non-profits for the available funding is ever increasing. There is constant pressure to reinvent ideas so that they appear fresh and new. This proposes a demanding, however potentially extraordinarily stimulating environment for the avid social entrepreneur.

Nearly everyone is looking to make ends meet, and non-profits are no exception. In the past decade, the solution to lack of funding resources in the non-profit sector has seen a move towards being socially enterprising. Social enterprises aim to construct alternative methods for generating revenue to support mission-based programs. A regressing economy ushers in increasing social tension and disparities. Higher unemployment rates cause individuals to seek self-employment or reinvent their careers in order to regain control of remaining resources.

People tend to take fewer risks and become less creative when the commercial sector undergoes rampant downsizing and reorganizing. Creativity requires trial and error, and no one knows what happens to those who experiment with a new approach and then fail. It takes a real leap of faith to become a test case. The irony here is that this tendency to avoid risk comes just at a time when creativity is most needed in the workplace. However, fortunately, challenging and dodgy conditions are often the type of circumstances in which entrepreneurs thrive. When times are tough, people are more willing to find deals, strike partnerships, or work towards new negotiations.

It seems as though in the current climate, attitude is everything. An optimistic outlook will likely open more doors and sustain enterprises much longer than a negative narrative. Defining oneself as an entrepreneur can take time and involves gradual building of confidence. However once someone begins to see the positive outcomes of their actions or innovative solutions, they begin to feel more passionate about identifying themselves as a social entrepreneur. Perhaps the changing economic environment will create entrepreneurs out of some individuals who may have never considered dreaming up and testing out their own solutions to persistent problems. In his 2007 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Al Gore pointed out that in Chinese and Japanese, the word “crisis” is written with two symbols. The first symbol stands for “danger,” and the second stands for “opportunity.”  A new premium has been placed on vision and strategic planning instead of short-term financial risk taking. Ultimately this type of constructive thinking will benefit everyone, even as some will suffer now.

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Top 10 things that inspired SSE in 2008

So, Todd Hannula had a pretty well-aimed rant towards the end of last year at inward-looking research-y type posts on the blog, so this blog's New Year resolution is to focus more on what matters: the people who are doing it; why they are doing it; and how they are going about it.

To that end, my final top 10 over this start of the New Year period is the top 10 things in this social entrepreneurship world that inspired me in 2008, rather than the 10 things that got my goat.

1) SSE students (and Fellows): an obvious place to start, maybe, but this is why we do what we do…and both the programmes that completed in 2008, and those that started, have been full of inspirational people creating positive change, motivating communities, taking personal responsibility, inspiring others and….inspiring us through the tougher moments as well.

2) Obama: OK, he's not our president, but it was a great event, and one that's given genuine hope (and unrealistic expectation) to America and the world. I certainly wouldn't have stayed up till 5 in the morning to hear many other presidential candidates speak….

3) Work well received by new audiences: Sometimes being bogged down, head down, in the UK scene, and the machinations of advocacy and delivery…it's easy to lose sight of what we're doing, and how well we're doing it. So giving speeches in Toronto and Beijing, and doing workshops withnew audiences like the Teach First ambassadors, reminded me of that, and provided a new slug of inspiration.

4) Social entrepreneurs are….the same the world over: While I'm on the international subject, another thing that inspired me, especially given SSE's potential international work, was how similar social entrepreneurs (and their needs, barriers, opinions, and debates) are, no matter the country they are in.

5) Estates: the most interesting, informative and influential book I've read this year (work-wise), though I have heard that a rogue 'social entrepreneur' features in the Booker-prize winning White Tiger which I got for Christmas…..other top books here

6) Shine + other unconferences: Shine 08 was a great success, IMHO (check out the live social reporting site as well), with a good vibe, dynamism and pragmatism to it; we'll be looking to build on it at Shine 09, along with our partners UnLtd, Ashoka and the Hub (+ the real workers behind it, Germination). Of other unconference-type events, Social Innovation Camp is definitely beginning to roll, and 2gether was a lot of fun.

7) Storytelling session at Skoll: The best session at the Skoll World Forum ever (and I've been at them all), and probably at any event this year. And introduced me to James Orbinski, and his book An Imperfect Offering, both of which are amazing.

8) This day: Charlie Leadbeater and Peter Holbrook: One of my favourite days of the year, giving my head and heart a good work out, and satisfying my yin and yang of conceptual and practical work. Both great and inspiring people to learn from.

9) GreenPrint: A little thing, perhaps, but a great example of a product that works and advocates and fundraises all in one; so far, I've "not printed" 183 pages I would have normally (which has also saved SSE $20.80 apparently; which was £10 ish but is now more like about £14). Genius little widget from

10) SSE's 10 year reunion dinner: And back to SSE for number 10, appropriately, for our 10 year anniversary reunion dinner. It was great to meet people from the first cohort or two, great to learn more about the initiation of the organisation, and great to get a sense from people how far the organisation has come…and how much further it can go.

Here's to 100s and 100s more inspiring people and moments in 2009.

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SSE news in January 2009: recruitment…..

Just a quick post to say that SSE is recruiting on two fronts:

a) Staff: we're looking for a super-keen, wonderful, dynamic, confident development person to become our Network Sustainability Officer: supporting and developing the growing UK franchise network.
See here for more details

b) Students: we're recruiting students for our two London programmes and for an amazing programme for Jewish / Muslim social entrepreneurs in New York. For more info on these opportunities, see:

Also, while I'm doing an internal bit of info-spreading, a big welcome to Hannah, our new intern over from the US. Currently beavering away on analysing a survey, responding to queries from the website, and generally getting up to speed on what the devil we do, I'm hopeful that Hannah will be putting up a few posts over the next few weeks while she's with us….

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Top 10 social entrepreneurship trends for 2009

There are, of course, a whole host of posts and articles predicting what we can expect in the year ahead: check out Nat’s take on for one. But repeating others has never stopped me before, so here’s my take (partially cribbed from other people’s posts) on what we might see in the next 12 months in the world of social entrepreneurship and enterprise. Who knows, we might even make this an annual thing to see if we were anywhere close to being right…..

1) Resilience: new favourite term of funders and policy-makers alike; the concept of resilient communities, as promulgated by Transition Towns, has only gained more credence in the current climate, and I think we’ll see it bandied around a fair bit. Rightly so, too, I reckon.

2) Partnership, collaboration and merger: where partnerships over the past five years have, at times, been partnerships of convenience put together simply to apply for a particular piece of funding, the recession will mean partnerships of necessity will be the order of the day.

3) Bang for buck: again, economically (and social impact-wise), it’s all going to be about value for money, particularly in public sector contracts; so added value will most likely need to be put into pound signs where possible (hello Mr SROI). To coin a phrase, the revolution will be monetised.

4) The Obama effect: while his grassroots web 2.0 movement building stuff will be the inspiration for a UK version (or twelve; who knows, one might take off), it may be that a U.S. Office for Social Innovation or a Social Entrepreneur agency (as touted in various documents and proposals) might be the more substantive influence on the sector.

5) Internationalisation: something which has grown in the last couple of years, with initiatives like the Social Enterprise World Forum and countless visits and exchanges; this will move from a network-y, sharing information, “you’re great, no you’re great” phase to more practical delivery partnerships and collaborative working.

6) Jobs and skills: with unemployment set to rise significantly (some are predicting over 3 million), an emphasis on job creation, skills for employment, and micro-entrepreneurship (aka self-employment) will come from government and trusts/foundations. Social entrepreneurship and social enterprise needs to place itself firmly and credibly in this space, because everyone else, from universities to private sector agencies, will be as well.

7) Mobiles: if last year (and the year before) was the year of the social network, we also started to see mobile phones (via twitter, qik et al) begin to impact. This could well be the year when “mobile apps for charity” is a phrase we see… or the year when Stephen Bubb starts to tweet. Which can only be a good thing.

8) Niches: the trend where we see expertise pulled in as a sub-contractor / deliverer for relatively small areas of work, or niche jobs; particularly relevant for start-up social entrepreneurs who should seek out those opportunities / unmet needs / markets.

9) Realism: the emphasis will be SMART, and the R will be the most important: realistic; from business plans to applications, from tenders to proposals, investors and funders will be looking for the credible, reliable and proven. Overblowing the trumpet not advised.

10) Investment (ready or not): two prongs to this point; the first is that there is much talk of ‘investment-readiness’ in the social entrepreneur world (or lack of therein), and 2009 will see agencies start to enter that space with vigour; the other aspect is that pressure will be put on trusts and foundations to maintain levels of investment even as their endowments go down, given the preceding decade of prosperity. We’ll see forward-thinking trusts do so.

All in all, lots to look forward to. SSE has much to look forward to, and we wish everyone, particularly SSE students and Fellows, a prosperous and successful new year.

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