Scruples and social entrepreneurs

Having returned and inspired from one of the most pleasant judging panel sessions in the history of awards (there should be a photo of us next to ‘consensus’ in the dictionary) [I am a judge on the CAF CCI Innovation Award – I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you…etc], I find social enterprise and social entrepreneurs in this week’s issue of Third Sector like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock.

After Jonathan Bland and Ed Miliband on the forthcoming Social Enterprise Action Plan (unfortunate acronym) comes Allison Ogden-Newton from SEL on why we need more ethical businesses [I’ll link to these when Third Sector puts them online]. Then there is a comment piece by Nick Cater entitled "Skollarship, or how to forget your scruples"….which is so flawed as to have roused myself to write a letter  (ok, e-mail) in to the magazine. He accuses social enterprises of having a "chequered history" and a "confused focus", takes a random shot at the funding of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, and then deconstructs their criteria for social entrepreneurs. So, for example, he ‘translates’ these for us (in red here):

– A willingness to face failure and start again
(Leave funders and beneficiaries in the lurch and move on)

– A bias towards action rather than reflection
(Don’t think, consider or care about the consequences)

– A habit of developing a network and subtly or unsubtly exploiting its members
(Line em up and lead em up the garden path)

And so on. Of course one might equally put in brackets behind these:
(Not wanting to sustain an ineffective and unsuccessful project)

and (Not wanting to spend entire life in committees, meetings or (!) writing about improving things, rather than actually doing anything)

and (Developing support networks, useful contacts and routes of opportunity to improve impact)

but let’s not ruin a lazy argument… He also suggests (tongue in cheek, I assume) that social entrepreneurs are "mercenaries selling questionable goods for whatever they can get".

Anyway, obviously we differ from the Skoll Centre (we are practical, rather than academic; their focus is global, ours is more UK etc.), but we certainly share common goals of promoting the movement and encouraging new entrants from all walks of life. So, here’s my response to Nick Cater’s piece:

"Nick Cater’s sideswipe at social entrepreneurs is lazy and misleading, but the piece does raise some interesting points, albeit by accident, rather than design.

The first is that the point about "beneficiaries being left in the lurch" should remind us that many social entrepreneurs were themselves viewed (patronisingly?) as ‘beneficiaries’; that is, they often come from the community they are aiming to serve (so cannot leave them behind so easily). The second is that the myth of the heroic individual social entrepreneur is just that, a myth: all successful entrepreneurs work through building networks of support and influence; what this has to do with garden paths, I have no idea.

The third is is that of a "chequered history": I can’t speak for others in the field, but 85% of SSE Fellows’ organisations are still running (the 1998 cohort’s survival rate alone is over one and a half times conventional business), they gain an average six-fold increase in turnover, over 50% gain more than half their income from trading, they create jobs and volunteering positions (30 and 70 respectively per 10 Fellows), and are delivering countless positive outcomes and inspiring others in their various communities. I would suggest that far from being "left in the lurch" or feeling their money is being "squandered", funders and investors would consider these mission-led organisations an excellent investment giving a substantial return.

Social entrepreneurship is not just about profit (though earning money should not be a cause of shame), but about an approach and a mindset to addressing unmet needs, big and small. And social entrepreneurs set up all different types of organisations, from charities to for-profit businesses, in order to achieve their goals. If Nick wants to find mercenaries, he might do better to look at his own byline: ‘consultant’."

We shall see if they publish…

Incidentally, some of the headlines there are from our forthcoming evaluation from the New Economics Foundation. Coming soon….

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One thought on “Scruples and social entrepreneurs

  1. Holy cow batman! The third sector article sums up what we battle against EVERY DAY | analysis paralysis, risk aversion, and a complete misunderstanding of how to affect change. I shall be writing my email as well.
    (Nice stats for the SSE) Facts over FUD!
    Additionally, the article continues to make the assumption that social enterprise is some kind of outlet for people who can’t get a regular job. The more this perception is spread, the further behind we get.