The UK likes to position itself as a leader in social entrepreneurship, but in some areas I think we are way behind. Take the new Social Entrepreneur Search widgets in the US, which themselves come from the Social Entrepreneur API. For the non-geeks, an API is tech-speak for an 'application programming interface' which basically provides data or information that is open and available for others to use and do what they will with (as Social Actions put it, "The Social Entrepreneur API dataset is available for any website or
individual to search, syndicate, republish, or use to build web
applications, widgets, and search engines"). And so these new search widgets and engines have been developed from that data source.
On the one hand, this is tremendously exciting. It's open, collaborative, innovative, connective and potentially helps match social entrepreneurs to investors / funders / journalists / other entrepreneurs in a way that is currently not possible in the closed and more clunky UK equivalents. [I'd include our own online SSE Fellows database in the 'clunky' category, which is currently searchable by field, by geography and by keyword etc, but is not in this kind of shape…yet]. It also opens up the possibility of taking this information and publishing it or syndicating it anywhere: potentially enormously powerful. Kudos goes to Social Actions, Social Edge, and the funders who've both funded the work and contributed the data.
So why worrying? Because the data for these 'vetted' social entrepreneurs only comes from a relatively small range of funders who fund fairly big scale, 'successful' social entrepreneurs (Skoll Foundation, Schwab Foundation, Echoing Green etc). What concerns me about that is that, as with the main Ashoka Fellows programme, the resources and connections and profile are often being diverted to those who need it, in many cases, the least: those who are already credible, sizeable, recognisable and well networked enough to attract funds, gain support and expand their work. Is the risk not of funnelling more resource to the well-resourced, rather than tapping the under-resourced and under-networked into this opportunity?
Partly, of course, I acknowledge that's for us to sort out: if I want SSE Fellows (or UnLtd wants its awardees) to be part of this, then we will have to invest in getting our data sorted for the API, and make the case. And I had that discussion with Social Edge about UK sources. There is also the question, though, of whether these would be considered 'vetted' or credible enough for the project (who judges that?). And yet we know from experience that social entrepreneurs want to discover peers like them (or just ahead of them), not just 'stars' (indeed these extraordinary, unachievable role models can actually deter new entrants), and that funders are interested in new (riskier) innovations, not just credible and mature success stories. Nat Whittemore on Change.org reckons the API / search won't be a supply of much funding, but we also know that those who feature in research, journalism, blogs and profiles end up getting more support and resource in the long run.
Dan Elitzer at Full Contact Philanthropy thinks the widget is potentially damaging because it "promotes the damaging mythology of the social entrepreneur" (a point with some validity that I've answered in the comments on that post), but I think the greater potential damage could come from scaling and championing the few, instead of including, inspiring, resourcing and connecting the many.