Silly season in full flow? Tony Blair is a “social entrepreneur”

Just when you thought we'd expanded the definition of social entrepreneur to breaking point (with the "Jedward are social entrepreneurs" article), along comes Tony Blair declaring that he, too, is a social entrepreneur. At first, I was merely amused by this (will he apply to come on our programme, or perhaps to be an Echoing Green or Ashoka Fellow; does he qualify for an UnLtd Level 1 award? how did we miss him in the Social Enterprise Ambassadors interviewing? will he apply for the Social Enterprise Mark? etc). But Rod Schwartz has done a more serious, full demolition job on his blog, detailing the reasons why Tony Blair might not quite hit the mark:

– mission / motivation: the financial imperative would still seem to be the most important for our erstwhile former Prime Minister

– lack of entrepreneurialism: though few of us might balk at a £2m retainer from a couple of large financial services organisation, this hardly qualifies as something he initiated where risk and personal responsibility is part of the piece

– focus (or lack of): Blair really has a broad portfolio of activities, rather than a laser-guided focus and commitment to solving one issue

– impact: all social entrepreneurs, ultimately, have to measure themselves by their social impact; my understanding is that his faith foundation has done some good work, but has he really got much done? difficult to tell without greater transparency

Do you think Tony Blair is a social entrepreneur? Look forward to your comments below….

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5 thoughts on “Silly season in full flow? Tony Blair is a “social entrepreneur”

  1. I think that yes he is a social entrepreneur.
    He seems genuinely motivated by a desire to create a better fairer planet, and to make a bloody good living as he does so. Very enterprising. Of course it is easy to grandstand and say ‘Oh he earns too much’. Are we going to set up an OFWAGE to regulate earnings and ensure that everyone remains within socially acceptable payscales?
    How effective he has been is another matter – but then a lack of effectiveness would seem to qualify him admirably for the ranks of social entrepreneurship. Many UK SEs are simply substituting volunteer labour for what was once salaried or serving as low cost agents of the state acting as not so subtle trojan horses to help various government departments (primarily health and worklessness) to hit their targets. Or levying charges for services that the state used to deliver for nowt. Or using a range of soft loans and grants (raised from taxation) that enable SEs to compete with the private sector.
    At least Blair raises revenues from the private sector to support his work rather than living off general taxation through grant writing and soft loans.
    Now don’t get me wrong. A good social enterprise is a wonderful thing to behold. But so to is a good for profit.
    Let’s not ask ‘Is Blair a social entrepreneur?’ Frankly, who gives a damn? Let us ask about his intentions and his efficacy instead. And let’s start to judge all businesses by these standards rather than by what they do with their profits, their legal structures or their self proclamations of social entrepreneurship.
    And while I am being frank I suspect that just like most successful businesses have very little to do with Business Link and other forms of government backed business support many successful social entrepreneurs keep a wide berth from you lot too.
    You confuse ‘risk’ with ‘entrepreneurship’. Entrepreneurs take managed risks – but only if they have to. If they can see a deal that is ‘all upside’ they don’t decline it on the basis that is is insufficiently entrepreneurial.

  2. Thanks for commenting Mike. I’m also not especially bothered what he calls himself, either: what I thought was interesting about Rod’s piece was that he DID take it seriously, and thought about what that meant. And both he and I do ask about his intentions and efficacy as part of what makes a social entrepreneur (see motivation / impact as two of the points above). I don’t particularly care what he does with his profits, but I do care about his intentions.
    I don’t confuse risk with entrepreneurship, IMHO, but risk, responsibility and undertaking an initiative are part of entrepreneurship; as are, depending on who you ask, innovation, commitment, resourcefulness, persistence, vision and so forth. And being resourceful (or open to opportunity) means they spot good deals and take them, as you say (“hence, few would balk at…”). Risk awareness and management is something we talk about a lot here.
    As for the other stuff, I generally think we agree on this stuff. Anyone who reads this blog knows that SSE has said consistently that it’s not about structures, percentages of profits, or what you call yourself. But it is about mission + motivation, impact, quality and transparency. Couldn’t agree more.
    As for us? Well, we’re pretty open about what we try and do with early-stage, start-up social entrepreneurs. And about how we measure it, and about the results. So people can make their own judgements on the past 12 years. We’re far from a panacea, and far from getting everything right. And also not right for everyone. And success looks different for different people on the programme: some gain confidence, self-awareness, skills + networks that allow them to achieve in other aspects of work + life; for others, their organisation takes off, grows and delivers real economic + social impact (and real devolution of power); others still realise it’s not for them. Which is equally a good outcome (though not a fundable output, as you note).
    To be honest, your post here ( describes as well as anything what underpins our approach and what we (might) consider success.

  3. Well, I’m certainly prepared to accept that Tony Blair is motivated by a genuine desire to change the world. Whether all the changes he’d like to make would move things in a direction that I would support is another matter.
    That’s an interesting problem that, as far as I know, the social enterprise movement has so far tip-toed around. It’s the orthodoxy to accept ‘social change’ and ‘social impact’ as politically neutral terms describing things that everyone agrees are good.
    Clearly it’s possible to devote yourself to bringing about social changes that some people thing are good but other people think are bad – for example, promoting access to contraception in the developing world.
    Obviously it’s not a new problem for charities but I don’t if there’s a debate within social enterprise about good and bad social impacts.

  4. ..and who judges social impact? You, me, the Queen, the Pope, God? Is there a reliable, empirically tested measure of social impact? Oh no…trick then isn;t is?
    All businesses – by virtue of trading (which they have to do to be businesses) have a social impact. They can’t help it you know – goes with the territory. The fact that some seek different ownership models or lay claim to higher values doesn;t make them more or less social.
    The term “social enterprise” has either to be narrowly defined or else it is wholly meaningless. Sadly with everyone and their dog bounding up onto the “I’m a social enterprise” platform it has become wholly meaningless – just a term to make business people feel better about what they do (as if they should feel bad) or people running largely government financed “not-for-profit” to pretend that somehow they’re really being enterprising when all they do is deliver contracts for the government.

  5. Thanks for the comments, David + Simon.
    David: I think this is a really interesting point. You’re right, I think, because we talk a lot about motivation + intention, but sometimes good intentions lead to negative outcomes, or at least what other people perceive as negative outcomes. Iraq is arguably a microcosm of that where Blair is concerned.
    Simon: The Pope sounds like a wise choice… You’re right, of course, both in terms of traditional business (having social impact) and in terms of consistent metrics. The SROI lot are doing their utmost to achieve some sort of consistency, but it’s a long road (though I guess the same was true of financial / economic metrics too). Others might say that all businesses should have to measure + communicate their social impact / bottom line. As Liam Black and others have pointed out, they’ll probably do it better.
    Also largely agree on social enterprise. For us it’s about entrepreneurship for social benefit regardless of where or in what (legal) form this is happening, and particularly from those who are traditionally viewed as ‘beneficiaries’. But that’s just one take on it, and it’s a spectrum, rather than a set of easily defined and separated boxes. It surely has to be what we do, not what we call it, that’s important.