One of the frustrations of recent events I’ve attended has been the common assumption that what comes from business into the social sector must be "better": venture philanthropy will revolutionise philanthropy, coherent investment-style metrics will revolutionise social impact, risk investment, social stock exchanges and loan funds will provide liquidity for the sector, and social enterprises will scale up in order to meet the challenges they face. Etc.
As regular readers of this blog will know, SSE‘s view of social entrepreneurship is an inclusive, broad-based one, not one that insists that social entrepreneurs must "have large-scale impact" to warrant the label, nor one that insists that social entrepreneurs must "earn income and trade", nor one that thinks impact is only delivered by an organisation’s services, and not also through its operations in the round. For us, at its simplest level, social entrepreneurship is about entrepreneurial individuals applying themselves for social / public benefit rather than solely personal gain.
Further to this, the sector an organisation comes from, its legal structure, or its financing is not a guarantee of efficiency, quality, greater impact, excellence or even, in some cases, competence. Measurement in this sector is more difficult, intangible, and (at times) nebulous than the financial bottom line. Venture philanthropists have a more sensitive, complex role than venture capitalists….and so on. In reality, there should be knowledge transfer and learning between sectors (and always has been); indeed, the action learning process that underpins the SSE programme was originally pioneered in large companies for senior management. And, when ‘business-like’ is equated with more professional or making best use of its money (and people), then no-one has an issue with that either…
But, currently, it has felt rather one way (though I wouldn’t wish to generalise: there are those who have a much more nuanced understanding all along the spectrum): and focusing more on business practice in the social sector, rather than achieving greater social equity and transformation. Hence my welcome for Paul Farmer’s remarks at the Skoll event recently. And hence also my interest in this new book by Michael Edwards: Just Another Emperor? The myths and realities of philanthropcapitalism. It looks at the application of business practices to the social sector / philanthropy in great detail and, as far as I’ve read, speaks much sense, as well as provoking debate. I won’t go on too much more, but would recommend starting with the transcript from the launch downloadable here, and I’ll end this rather long post with a short quote from that which gives you a flavour of the argument:
"[Another] area where philanthrocapitalism claims to make an impact is in
improving the financial and the management capacities of civil society organisations.
However, I’ve always been confused by the way venture philanthropists and social
entrepreneurs differentiate themselves from the rest of civil society on the grounds
that they are “results based” or “high performance”, implying that everyone else is
uninterested in outcomes. Now sure, there are mediocre citizens groups, that’s true,
just as there are mediocre businesses, mediocre venture philanthropists, mediocre
social entrepreneurs and mediocre government departments. So why import the
practices of mediocrity into the social sectors, is Jim Collin’s conclusion, of Good to
What separates good and bad performance has very little to do with
business thinking or involvement in the market. What separates them is whether
they have a clear focus to their work, strong learning and accountability mechanisms
that keep them heading in the right direction and the ability to motivate their staff, or
volunteers, to reach the highest collective levels of performance. There’s no evidence
I know of which proves that business thinking, or business experience, can generate
those advances more effectively than experience in other sectors."