Superheroes and celebritisation

Have wanted to respond a bit more fully to the article in the Guardian about Social entrepreneurs are not superheroes, written by Rob Greenland….who’s been doing some really great posts of late.Essentially, Rob’s take is that using case studies to explain the effect of social entrepreneurs has a potential downside, namely that they can become almost comic-strip like in their portrayal of an ‘ideal’, rather than a reality. This is reinforced by the consistent use of a few big hitters by politicians, which often bear little resemblance to the vast majority of the movement. To quote the concluding paragraph from the piece:

"Away from the glamour at the top end of the market, there are loads of
organisations that are working hard at changing internal cultures,
working with customers to encourage them to pay for services, and
battling with the public sector to get it to match its new-found
enthusiasm for social enterprise with an acceptance that someone
somewhere still has to pay for social benefits to be delivered. And
many of these hardworking organisations, like me, are starting to get a
bit distracted by some of the more exuberant cheerleading on the

You can read Rob’s original post on his blog here, which also attracted a great number of comments. One expands on Rob’s theme to talk about the ‘celebritisation’ of the sector, and its increasing corporatisation.

I find myself agreeing with large swathes of this. I don’t want to repeat myself too much, so will refer to some previous posts that intersect with this subject as I go:

The myth and truth of the heroic individual; see also here. Basically, our take is that successful social entrepreneurs create networks, build movements, inspire communities (and involve and engage them), establish teams and so forth: there are no superheroes who do it alone, and most social entrepreneurs you speak to will always emphasise their team and the many people who help(ed) make it happen.

But (and this is one thing I’m taking from Andrew Mawson’s book, review to follow), individuals do drive and lead change. Someone brings the group together, someone has the casting vote at the meeting, someone keeps things ticking over, and someone initiates things. There are risks in promoting individuals as the solution, but there are equally risks in endless committees, muddled partnerships, well-meaning talking shops and so forth.

The celebritisation point is an interesting one. I did a post a while back about recognition and celebrating success where I said that

"Recognition and celebration are key for raising social entrepreneurs’
confidence, their credibility as a leader of an effective organisation,
and an understanding of their own value (and the value of their work).
When this is recognised at our Fellowship events by politicians and
stakeholders, by the praise of funders or investors, or by their own
peers, the effects are substantial."

I think this is true, and I also think there is a need for aspiration (the Tim Smit big vision stuff). But there are some risks associated, it is true, with the VIP / celebrity social entrepreneur approach; namely, that a small, elite group of people get profile, support, resources, networks access and so on, but the vast majority don’t. This is something I’ve explicitly criticised Ashoka for in the past, for example, in that their "everyone a changemaker" rhetoric is not always mirrored in their selection of a few hand-picked already-successful social entrepreneurs creating huge change that many cannot even think of attempting. Core to the SSE methodology, for example, are relevant role models who provide inspiration and information, not unattainable vision. Often in our recruitment, we have to puncture myths about what a social entrepreneur is (people will often say "that couldn’t be me" until an example that hits home is put in front of them) to reach and engage those at the grassroots.

So why are we involved in things like the Social Enterprise Ambassadors programme, and the interviews for the first UK Ashoka Fellows? (to be announced end of March). It comes back to the long tail of social entrepreneurship argument: that we need to support and multiply the opportunities for social entrepreneurship at a local level to multiply the impact across a wide range of communities. But if we want those people to enter into the movement / sector, we need what are called ‘familiar points of entry’. In social entrepreneurship terms, this is your Tim Smit or your Muhammad Yunus: people know the thing exists because of the big examples. It gives them a context and an initial understanding. The head needs the tail and the tail needs the head.

The second thing is that, through our involvement, we can widen the pool of people getting access to these opportunities. Gill Coupland, Ken Orchard, Saeeda Ahmed, Jean Jarvis, Trisha Lee, Kresse Wesling, Sam Conniff and so on: the Ambassadors group includes familiar names, but also many like these whom were little (or less well) known and run smaller, more local/regional enterprises. (Indeed, Rob  works with Gill in Leeds). Similarly, though the Ashoka Fellows will include at least one very familiar name, I would guess that people would be hard pushed to pick the other three (and none of the four are ambassadors, either). And that must be healthy: more examples reflecting the diversity of the movement, and how it delivers social change at all levels, and in manifold different ways.

Finally, the corporate side of things does carry risks. I worry when politicians talk of the ‘independent sector’ (which groups the third and private sectors) for public service delivery, and worry about the emphasis on scale of organisations, rather than movements and ideas (see the long tail piece again). But again we shouldn’t dismiss all corporate involvement; this is a spectrum that runs from unconstituted voluntary groups through to for-profit businesses with strong social/environmental objectives. Should we be intoxicated by business and see it as the answer to the inefficiencies and lack of impact of this sector? No. Should we close off and learn nothing from them (and vice versa)? Also no, in my opinion. And people should judge organisations by their transparency, the quality of what they do, their stated governance and so forth.

As I wrote in a recent response to an article, "Social entrepreneurship should not be construed as something
"exclusive", or something imposed. Indeed, it should provide an
opportunity for people from all backgrounds in all areas to contribute
to a wider change.
" This continues to underpin our work, our approach to franchising (to avoid London-centricity, amongst other reasons) and, most importantly, the programmes we deliver to social entrepreneurs. It’s important to be reminded by Rob and others about this, to be challenged, and to keep it real, because we don’t always get the balance right.

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4 thoughts on “Superheroes and celebritisation

  1. Social entrepreneurs are not superheroes

    One of the matters that was at issue in the unheated debate between Charles Leadbeater and Andrew Keen the other day was the balance between group creativity (promoted in Charles’ book We-Think) and role of the individual, celebrated by Andrew.

  2. Social entrepreneurs are not superheroes

    One of the matters that was at issue in the unheated debate between Charles Leadbeater and Andrew Keen the other day was the balance between group creativity (promoted in Charles’ book We-Think) and role of the individual, celebrated by Andrew.

  3. Another part of this debate seems to me to concern our inability, an issue very much shared by the voluntary and even, arguably, the community development sector,to fail to work together. Co-operation, these days, seem non-existant with the potential of the social and community enterprise as a broad church to initiate and identify change an unrealised concept. Yet surely if we continue to ignore ways in which we all to some extent overlap, recognise common ground and share our many problems individualisation becomes the road to no-where. Take, for example, credit unions (although I prefer the notion of a community/neighbourhood bank) in our region where there are almost twenty individual CUs committed to these lonely, and my view, selfish pathways. Yet if we worked together, and our county identies could be easily retained, we could solve massive problems ranging from a shared audit to a corporate banking account. Another example is the Republic of Ireland where the collective strength of community banking amounts to some 18b, yes, billion, euros and is a good example of how to move on. This is not to say the money is collectively shared but it does demonstrate how, Dublin Health Authority and others, can employ dozens of staff, provide numerous perks to their staff and provide real alternatives to the major banking system. What policy papers there are from central and local govt. seem to me to completely ignore the benfits of cooperation as we find ourselves, sadly, simply copying sad and insular models from industry and business. Who long ago have, demonstrably, lost their way….

  4. I think you’re right Peter. And, as you point out, it’s not only about competition vs. collaboration (which remains central to these issues), but also about duplication, scale, impact and so on.
    I don’t think there are any easy answers: certainly, I wouldn’t want to reduce the potential for new innovation, new solutions, new leaders emerging and so on. And I want to see solutions best-fit to the community they are aiming to serve (and understanding/engaging/being indelibly linked to that community).
    On the flipside, bigger operations can bring more ‘efficiency’, a quicker growth in scale of impact, reduction in wasted resources….but also potentially an out-of-touch, bureaucratic, top-down initiative….
    I think models of replication and co-operation that allow individual organisations to co-exist and co-support are the ways forward. Ones that can give scale but also flexibility at the local level. It’s certainly not easy, but that’s what SSE is trying to pursue through it’s franchise model, and also through our chairing of the Social Entrepreneurship Policy Group (with Ashoka, CAN, Changemakers, TrainingForLife, UnLtd and ourselves).