[this is a brief chapter for a forthcoming handbook from NESTA (of which more when it comes out)….thanks to them for letting me blog this in advance….]
While entrepreneurs in the business sector identify untapped commercial markets, and gather together the resources to break into those markets for profit, social entrepreneurs use the same skills to different effect. For social entrepreneurs, untapped markets are people or communities in need, who haven't been reached by other initiatives. But while they may read from a different (triple) bottom line, social and business entrepreneurs have a lot in common. They build something out of nothing. They are ambitious to achieve. They marshal resources to meet their needs. They are constantly creative. And they are not afraid to make mistakes.
The marshalling of resources is particularly important in this context, as start-up and fledgling social entrepreneurs often have little spare money (or money at all) for key parts of their work, namely marketing, promotions, communications, fundraising, events organisation, and community-outreach. This is where the development of web 2.0-type tools is playing such a significant role; where two or three years ago, we would get the question “do you know someone cheap who designs good websites?”, the questions now tend to be “what’s a blog and how do I start one?” or “should I pay for this or is the free version OK?”. The costs of podcasting, blogging, uploading video, starting an online network, promoting your project on Facebook or specialised networks like UnLtdWorld, fundraising online etc have fallen so far as to completely democratise it: for social entrepreneurs now, the big question is no longer “what can we afford?” but “what should we use?” and “how do you use it best?” In some cases, SSE Fellows (like Nathalie McDermott of OnRoadMedia or Jude Habib of SoundDelivery) take this a step further and make it their mission to empower communities / other organisations to speak up or better achieve using new tech.
Our message to them is a simple one: work out what you want to achieve and then work out whether technology can play a part in helping do it. It can be all too tempting amidst a rash of “twitter is the cure to all ills” headlines to leap in, waste time and lose focus. But if building a community of like-minded people who support and engage with their idea is important to moving it forward (and those people can be found online), then fire away using Facebook groups, twitter, blogs and whatever is most appropriate. Such tools are often a cost-effective means to an important end: building a following around an idea or a new enterprise. Tools such as blogs and twitter also allow for a more direct form of communication that, when done with consistency and authenticity, will better engage and inform that following. That builds trust, credibility and loyalty to an organisation in the medium to long term.
What is particularly interesting for social entrepreneurs in this space is that tools like Twitter and Facebook have blurred the line between the personal and the organisational, between the life and the work. But this is already the case for social entrepreneurs in many cases, so fits naturally with the way they are and the way they operate. Alongside the fact that networking is key to their success (particularly when they can feel isolated and disillusioned on their journey), it’s clear why such tools can be not only useful organisationally (for communications, community-building etc) but also individually (to make contacts, build relationships, find support, bookmark sites of interest etc).
However, whilst not wishing to end in Luddite fashion, it’s important that we also remember that many social entrepreneurs work in real, geographical communities that can’t be reached online; that e-mail remains the primary communication tool for the vast majority; that ‘slacktivism’ will tend to reinforce the idea that people can solve problems with a click of a mouse (and keep a healthy distance from all that nasty poverty and disadvantage); that online approaches need to be measured for their social impact if resources are put into them that could go elsewhere; that Facebook status updates aren’t a substitute for meeting people face-to-face; and that doing things is more important than talking about doing things.
Ultimately, social media tools provide amazing opportunities and resources to facilitate change, to network effectively, to communicate directly, to fundraise innovatively, and to build communities swiftly. But in all but a very small minority of cases for social entrepreneurs, they are means to an end, not the end in themselves.