A little while back, I blogged about why the (increasingly tedious) political expenses scandal in the UK was relevant to the realm of social entrepreneurship [see What the expenses scandal means for social entrepreneurs]. My point, largely, was about the importance of trust and legitimacy to the work of social entrepreneurs, and the associated importance of honesty and transparency to achieving and maintaining that trust.
I think the same applies to the agencies operating in the sector to support social entrepreneurs and social enterprises as well, though. If we spin, overegg, over-heroicise and overplay the success of the people we work with, there is a risk of not giving the full picture. Particularly when, particularly in the start-up space, success can look very different for different people. Indeed, my stock answer when we are asked the question "What is success for SSE?" is to say exactly that: success looks different for different people coming through the programme. For some, the journey is primarily a personal one in which, it could be argued, the project or organisation forms a vehicle for learning and development; for others, the organisation flies and grows; still more thrive in the months immediately following the programme, whilst others find new employment or civic roles they wouldn't have accessed before.
[Or as NEF put it in their evaluation of our work, “For some, the SSE acts as a [place for] fine-tuning, giving them the
ability to move forward with their project in a variety of ways and to
create a greater impact than they would have otherwise. For others, the
SSE is nothing less than the difference between existence and
non-existence of their organisation and profound change within their
But we have to be open that there are myriad and multiple outcomes, few of which can be "guaranteed" for each social entrepreneur. Not all create jobs and not all establish organisations, and some decide, ultimately, that this world is not for them. Others find they prefer to use their new skills + networks to work in (more secure) employment. Others fall out of contact or self-select out of being communicated with about where they are at. And the more honest and open we are about those in our communications and measurement work, the more people will trust the positives and successes we also talk about. That needs to be done sensitively, of course, but it's crucial to not set unrealistic expectations with the students, our funders and supporters and, indeed, ourselves. That's something I'm emphasising as we look forward to forthcoming research and evaluation projects.
We can get better at this, no doubt, and so can others. I attended a social entrepreneurship seminar at London Business School the other evening, hosted by Professor Michael Hay, and organised by Teach First for their ambassadors (I got a few SSE students a free place). It was an interesting case study, in the MBA style, of a South African organisation called CIDA, which I remembered from the Skoll Awards a few years back. Professor Hay was involved personally in the organisation, and (what turned out to be) the turnaround of it, so had great knowledge and insight of what had happened.
I think, largely, he doesn't want all the details spread around / broadcast widely and I want to honour that, but suffice to say that the original founder of CIDA is no longer with the organisation, and is now running the Maharishi Invincibility School of Management, and that the new board / executive team of CIDA has now developed personal development programmes for students that don't relate to transcendental meditation, consciousness-based education ™ and so on. Draw your own conclusions etc…
What surprised me is that I hadn't heard about this at all. Whilst acknowledging that this is a very high profile initiative (particularly in South Africa), there is an enormous amount of learning to be had frmo this example. Ironically, enough, transparency is a massive part of it (it wasn't clear what lay behind / what the ultimate motivations were), as is a blurring of the social entrepreneur with the organisation. The people present the other evening felt that this was forgivable in the early stages (when the social entrepreneur, after all, pretty much is the organisation), but that there needed to be proper governance, management processes, structures for stakeholder involvement etc when the organisation grew. Perhaps there are reasons why the full story can't be openly shared (I don't know), but the learning for the sector could be significant.
What a great session this would make at an event or conference, from one of the funders or support agencies who backed CIDA in its previous incarnation. It's now back on the rails on its original mission and is set, by all accounts, to continue to thrive….but would be fascinating to hear about a 'failure', be that a failure of due diligence, of governance, of blurring of individual with organisation, or of something different. After all, there's entrepreneurship in social entrepreneurship, so there's risk…and it's about being risk-aware, not risk-averse. But that awareness only comes from a willingness to be open and share examples, not through a head-in-the-sand approach.