Scaling social entrepreneurship (or why many molehills make a mountain)

[This post was written for the UnLtdWorld Shout Out for Social Enterprise series]

There are
big problems in the UK and in the rest of the world: social and environmental
needs and challenges that are not currently being met adequately or, in some
cases, at all. So it seems obvious that to meet these big problems we need big
solutions and big scale organisations and projects that can change things for
the better.

And there are amazing examples of extraordinary social entrepreneurs establishing such
organisations: Muhammad Yunus (Grameen); Fazle Abed (BRAC); John Bird (Big
e); Michael Young (Open University / Which Magazine); Ann Cotton (CAMFED) and countless others. And you
can find countless more via the websites of Ashoka, Schwab, Skoll and others. We should
recognise, support and be inspired by their work.

But we
should also not necessarily use them as a template or blueprint, or fetishize
scale itself. Why? For a number of reasons.

1) Firstly, what is important is the scale
of impact
change made, not the scale of individual organisation or scale of budget;
well-focused advocacy can change policies affecting the lives of millions; an
open-sourced solution can spread change more rapidly than a heavily controlled
one; a franchise operation can fit local and regional needs more closely, and
avoid reinventing the wheel. Social entrepreneurship should not be about

2) Secondly, scale
is not part of what makes a social entrepreneur (despite what is said here;
check the comments!); the vast majority of social entrepreneurs start
with a small-scale or niche
problem, and are content to create a solution that solves it in a sustainable
way. Just as in the commercial world, a few have the capacity, willingness and
ambition to replicate and scale and grow their organisation; but there’s
nothing wrong with those who don’t. Using scale as a part of what defines a
social entrepreneur is only serving to create an exclusive, elitist, MBA-heavy
cadre, not an inclusive, diverse and accessible movement.

3)Thirdly, small-scale
makes business and social sense
. In the
commercial world, we might spend most of our time talking about entrepreneurs
like Richard Branson, Stelios, or Alan Sugar, but 97% of UK businesses employ
less than 20 people (and 95% employ less than 5 people), 64% of commercial
innovations come from small firms, and businesses with under 50 employees
contribute over half of UK turnover (FSB statistics).
Why should this be any different with social entrepreneurs, particularly when
their reason for starting (and motivation for continuing) is often a local /
personal one? And imagine those statistics translated into social, rather than
commercial, innovation and social impact instead of turnover.

4) Fourthly, the more who get involved, the better. Not only because “many social entrepreneurs x small impact = large-scale impact”
as surely as “few social entrepreneurs x big impact = large-scale impact” (as complex as my maths gets; see here for more); and not only because we need more innovations, not fewer. But also
because social entrepreneurs, whether they are in school, career-changing,
long-term unemployed, a refugee or a new graduate, gain skills, confidence and
networks through the process of
setting up a project or organisation. So it’s not just about what their
organisation does and delivers, but also about their development as future
employees, entrepreneurs, representatives and leaders.

5) Fifthly, replication and scaling
is tough
, and
people often underestimate how tough it is (I know that SSE did). There is now
pressure on social entrepreneurs to scale up, often before they’ve truly proven
their original idea or concept really works; pressure that comes from funders,
prizes and, to an extent, media emphasis. And I’m not just talking about
investment readiness (do the numbers stack up, the cashflow, the working
capital?) but also, more broadly, about organisational readiness (do you have
enough capacity, expertise, the right skill set?) and even what might be termed
‘impact readiness’ (have you proven your model works, will you have most impact
taking this route?). It can also be tough, as Body Shop and others have found,
to scale values and ethical principles. 

SSE is not ‘anti-scale’ at all. Of those listed above, Michael Young was our founder; Ann Cotton is an SSE Fellow; John Bird is an expert witness on our programme. And
SSE itself operates under a social franchise, replicating its programme across
the UK and the world
(well, Australia for now but more soon, we hope).

It’s our belief that we need both: the big stars and case studies that can capture
imagination and bring attention and investment and recruits to this world; but
also countless smaller stars that help change lives in communities up and down
the country and who, cumulatively, have an enormous role in transforming things
for the better.

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Video-tastic: social entrepreneurs in Melbourne + New York

Whilst SSE's focus has been resolutely on the UK over the past 6 months (hello Cornwall, Yorkshire, Devon, Hampshire to the growing franchise), there's also been a bit of international expansion and work going on as well.

By all accounts (there was a significant UK / Scottish presence…), the Social Enterprise World Forum 09 in Melbourne was a great event, and congrats are due to the organisers (Social Traders and all at Social Ventures Australia). To get a sense of what the event was like, you can check out the photo gallery (look forward to Voice 10 being opened with a 'smoking ceremony') or, better still, watch the video of the centrepiece debate, featuring SSE CEO Alastair Wilson in fine form:

SEWF Debate: There's no business like social business from Rowan Attenborough on Vimeo.

Second up video-wise, SSE was the UK partner in recruiting and inputting into the design of the Ariane de Rothschild Fellows Programme on Dialogue and Social Entrepreneurship, involving Jewish and Muslim social entrepreneurs from France, UK and US. Again, it was an exciting thing to be involved in, and we were delighted with the UK participants selected: an amazing bunch, including two SSE Fellows (Athol + Mobeen) and one current SSE student (Norma). Here is a 5 minute video that gives you an insight into the 2 week programme in New York:

There is also a round-up video from the US partner / delivery organisation, Columbia University here:

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