The Top 5 social entrepreneurship debates…in the world…ever

Part of me thinks I should blog about the new £6m Bank of Scotland social entrepreneur awards, announced this weekend in the Times. Obviously all new money and publicity for the movement is welcome…but my excitement lessened slightly on reading that the awards were for 2 organisations and of that £6m, only £600k was actual cash: the rest is loan, admittedly at very friendly rates in this credit crunch age. Is this what we need in the social entrepreneurship world? Possibly, I guess: will be interesting to see. But with CAN's Breakthrough, Impetus Trust, Venture Partnership Foundation, UnLtd Ventures, Ashoka, Schwab, Futurebuilders et al all concentrating on scaling up/recognising a small number of organisations, is this the best use of £600,000 for social entrepreneurship? Let's hope one of the awards goes to a new outstanding organisation that hasn't benefited from similar sources……

So, instead, I thought I'd discuss a post on the (relatively) new Social Entrepreneurship blog on (US non-profit social networking site), which I've been enjoying of late. Nathaniel Whittemore posted up what he considered the Top 5 Controversies in Social Entrepreneurship. These were as follows:

– Individual vs. collective
– Definition
– Scale
– Symptoms vs. causes
– Non-profit and for-profit relations

Reading those, and thinking of the posts over the last two and half years and 327 posts (oh yes), I thought that was a pretty decent stab at what lies at the root of most debate and argument across the sector. I guess the symptoms vs. causes one (i.e. are social entrepreneurs ever going to achieve systemic change, addressing the causes) is probably one that is less relevant here; the 'philanthrocapitalism' debate has been predominantly held in the US to this point.

My other point would be that some of these contain more than one debate; the definition debate is about social enterprise vs. social entrepreneurship (structures vs people), but also about earned income vs. structure (eg. 50% earned income means you are…), and, further about Ashoka-Schwab-Skoll social entrepreneur vs. UnLtd-SSE social entrepreneur….although the latter is also about heroic individual vs. networked changemaker, and about scale as a criterion of definition.

So, with large hat tip to Nat for the idea, my 5 would be:

Scale: by which I mean the "can (lots of) social entrepreneur-led organisations in this movement scale and still retain what made them work in the first place?", but also the "do you have to scale to be a social entrepreneur?" question

Importing private sector practice: slightly different emphasis from Nat here (who discusses the profit imperative), as I think the large issue is the effective and appropriate use of business and private sector practice, be this in venture philanthropy, evaluation, mergers & acquisitions etc

Definition: in the UK, particularly, this is a social entrepreneurship and social enterprise question; always sounds semantic squabbling, but is much more important than that: ultimately, it's about where resources are most effectively invested to create social change. All the CIC debate etc is about people vs. structure, ultimately….

Role of individual: puncturing the myth of the 'heroic individual' is a common thing for us, pointing out that successful social entrepreneurs need to inspire, engage, motivate, network and build effective teams and supporters; but also pointing out that community groups don't spring out of the ether as a fully-formed group…there is always an individual who is the catalyst or spark-plug

Public service delivery: again, more UK-specific, I think, but you can't move for conversations and debates about whether social enterprise should be responding to the public service delivery agenda (see today's slightly terrifying headline: "Let social enterprises run the NHS") or whether, seeing as they are also meant to be entrepreneurship, innovation and risk, they should in fact be meeting needs NOT being met by public services; not to mention the independence from government, reliance on funding issues…..

So what do you reckon….have I missed an enormous elephant in the social entrepreneurship room?

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9 thoughts on “The Top 5 social entrepreneurship debates…in the world…ever

  1. A tricky task, but interesting nevertheless. I would like to develop the issues surrounding one of your chosen five. The individual versus collective debate in the UK has two dimensions, one of which you rightly describe as an issue around leadership, although I always put the School firmly in the camp of the heroic individual, given the pronounced hero worship of Lord Young (no doubt a great man in many respects, but not all) and indeed in the very name of the School, which places the emphasis on the individual (entrepreneur) as opposed to the collective (enterprise). The other connected dimension to this issue is to do with ownership, although rather than use the terms individual and collective, it might be better to use the terms private (individual) and social (collective). For me, social ownership is a key defining feature of social enterprise, distinguishing it from private enterprise and private ownership. The concept of social ownership appears to be highly political and contentious. The Social Enterprise Coalition used to say (on its website) that social ownership was a key characteristic of social enterprise. But now social ownership has been expunged from its website. I just did a search on its website and came up with no results.

  2. Thanks for this Jim. SSE clearly is in the individual camp…although our students and Fellows choose a variety of structures to achieve their outcomes, a fair number of which deliberately share governance or give users ownership. I hope also that, as I said briefly above, although SSE believes in supporting individuals, we make clear that the maverick hero is a bit of a myth…and that they won’t achieve success without an ability to engage, network, create teams, realise what they don’t know / aren’t good at (in order to get that elsewhere), have strong involvement and support of the community they are aiming to serve etc etc. I think the UK is clearer about this than the US, where the hero worship (see Skoll, Schwab et al) is on a different scale.
    A final note on Michael Young. I think you have something of a fair point here, and those of us who didn’t know him use him less in presentations / external work and so on. Also, increasingly, we tend to try and give a realistic view of how difficult he could be to work with at times, and how privileged he was (given the patronage of the Elmhirsts and so on) in his unique circumstances.
    Having said that, I’m always surprised at how much our students identify with him (as well as expert witnesses, their peers etc)…partly, I think, when it’s made clear (as Toby Young said at the funeral) that his childhood unhappiness was the wellspring of everything that he did later, successful or not. That is to say that, like them, at root there was a personal motivation for wanting to change things.
    It’s interesting to think about the individual-collective dichotomy. For me, SEC has tended to think about a legal structure as is, rather than what may lie underneath that. So the debate tends to be about supporting a legal structure rather than individuals, rather than about supporting a collective rather than individuals. Interesting to me that I missed that….so thanks for this comment; stimulating me into further thinking!

  3. Not sure I understand your response to my comment about social ownership. Putting aside the management-speak use of the term ownership as a psychological process, I do think that social onwership is all about legal structure. Legal formats promoting social ownership should have open membership by all stakeholders, including beneficiaries, and control by these members should be according to social principles of democracy, equality and equity.
    Unfortunately, social ownership was preceived by government, and its advisers, as being a brake and a burden on social entrepreneurship, demonstrated most vividly in the eventual shape of the Community Interest Company (CIC) regulations. These regulations enable CICs to be privately owned, by a closed membership of founders-owners-managers, who have full control.
    If social enterprise is to have any meaning as a term, it must embody the principle of social ownership and as well as social impact. By itself, social impact is worthless, and can be achieved by any business contractor delivering public services. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. That’s why social ownership is important. The first lesson for all social entrepreneurs should be how to be a servant-leader, fully accountable to their stakeholders, through the ownership and control of the enterprise. When you’ve got a spare moment try googling “servant leader”.

  4. Wasn’t trying to use management speak, so sorry if that’s how it came across. Again, I don’t think we disagree massively. I guess I just had different examples in my head of SSE Fellows. One, for example, who set up a Kurdish and Turkish community organisation (a charity in this case), and created and capacity-built a board completely comprised of users / people from the local community…in order to reduce the reliance on him as an individual and (longer term) remove the need for him to be involved. For me, with my limited understanding of the term, that’s true servant leadership.
    So I do think that SSE Fellows use structures to provide users with ownership. Some have started co-ops, many start charities with boards drawn from those they serve, others focus hugely on developing their staff and users, and building and empowering communities. Even Michael Young saw the benefit of creating a membership-structured magazine in Which?, to ensure its independence from lobbying, retail and government.
    And we agree on CICs, so I won’t go there. But I’m interested by the “By itself, social impact is worthless”. I’d agree with that, which is why I bang on not only about the need to measure impact / quality but also be transparent about how you operate (in terms of governance, ownership, funding etc). I guess, for SSE, legitimacy and credibility (and trust) are not always only conveyed by a structure…but about how people operate with whatever structure is most fit to help them achieve their goals.
    Another example, I suppose: Sheenagh Day is an SSE Fellow who runs a fair trade business: importing hand-made Bangaladeshi goods from women co-operatives in that country. Her organisation is a PLC, as that made most sense to where she was at, and to the organisations (high-end retailers) that she was dealing with. The impact on those women has been extraordinary, with rises in standards of living of 100%….and all the associated benefits that has brought. Additional to the credibility from the impact, though, the fact that Sheenagh worked in international aid with those communities for 25 years…the details of how she involves (and devolves to) them in design, planning etc…and about the primacy of her social mission (over any personal financial one: she’s earned less than her previous aid-related salary every year since leaving it).
    With more capacity, and as she continues to empower the communities, she may well go down a Divine Chocolate route (co-op as shareholder): these things are a journey of development as well. But for me, right now, she is a social entrepreneur having enormously positive social impact, who has devoted her entire life to serving those communities.

  5. Nick
    Although I have been writing the Social Business Blog for nearly two years ( I am an appalling technophobe. This is, I think, the first comment I have made on anybody’s blog except out own. Congratulations–a tribute to the high quality of what you produce.
    A couple of points:
    First, I must disagree on the need for definition. I think we all differ in what we think we mean by various terms (e.g. social business or social enterprise or even social) but I think these disagreements are healthy, as long as each of us defines our terms. What I often find is that those who seek the development of a common definition usually prefer THEIRS. And those who seek coordination in our movement look to acheve this under THEIR banner. In that light, I prefer the advocacy of competitive definitions!
    Second, I like your five. My five would be (in no particular order):
    1) Scale–until the sector gets the capital it needs it is a backwater
    2) Sound management–great ideals are no replacement for doings things well
    3) Succession–Visionaries at some point need to make room
    4) Safeguarding ethicality–How this is done is tricky. Social entrepreneurs tend to think that only they (as individuals) can ensure the ethical or social mission. If true, they have not built a sustainable company.
    5) Sense of humour–I add this because I just saw that all my others began with “S” and I wanted to keep the pattern. But really, this is important. If we all take ourselves too seriously life becomes dreadfully dull
    Finally, you very kindly offer links to many blogs on your site, including ours. However, you call ours the Catfund blog, which we have never been. Since inception in early 2007 ours has been the Social Business Blog. Would you mind correcting this on your site?

  6. Thanks very much for this Rod; much appreciate the comment.
    I like the “advocacy of competitive definitions”; certainly true that responding to other’s definitions has helped us clarify our position in the piece. I think we still, Whitman-esque, seek to encompass multitudes, but the definition debate(s) have definitely helped clarify our own position (and justification for that position)
    And I like the 5-S Strategy. 3 and 4 seem to be connected, I think: that the organisation survives and ‘stays true’, even without the founder / visionary. And all in favour of 5…this is an exciting, passionate, dynamic and interesting area to work in, with amazing people involved: if we can’t have fun, where can we?
    [p.s. have changed the link to Social Business Blog on our main site…cheers]

  7. Nick,
    I really like your blog and generally look forward to reading it, but I am feeling despair in these types of posts. I can see that from an academic research standpoint they make sense, but as a tool to provoke discussion among social entrepreneurs or those who support them—i can’t see the logic. It appears to distract us from the point of doing what we are doing. Do I, or should I care if scale is part of the movement? Surely, that will be determined by access to capital (as pointed out by Rod)
    My viewpoint: Instead of arguing about the issues, bloggers or other storytellers could be telling stories about people doing things that matter and pointing out why they matter. This approach would tend to drive new entrants to action, following examples and positive energy of doing something good. I continue to promote doing something good over structure/scale/definition, etc. to everyone I speak to.
    Example: we had some college kids over to myCatalyst in Shine the other day, and they were tasked with describing a business they would set up; how it would work, why it would work. 60% (3 out of 5 groups) came up with social businesses! They don’t know what a social enterprise is (how it is defined), don’t understand CICs, and are not savvy about scale…they just want to change the world for good. Now imagine their thoughts when they go to the blogosphere and find most bloggers and messengers (including Skoll!) focused on the technical issues of social business. EEEEK! Contrast that with going to the majority of popular blogs (yes, you are popular) in traditional business–Seth Godin, Presentation Zen, Guy Kawasaki, etc. –they won’t get technical debate–they will get a healthy dose of dos/don’ts, stories, open ended questions, etc. Which tribe looks more attractive?
    What if we simply starting doing things like setting up an alternative to the CIC (if that is what we/you want) or defining through stories instead of scientific analysis? example: loads of internet folks can’t stand typical copyright law, so what did they do? Set up Creative Commons Licensing. It allows the debate to happen through action.
    I like action, so perhaps I have missed the point. But I bet most social entrepreneurs or those in the sector are more inspired to take action, try something new, make a difference by hearing about a wide variety of organisations, solutions, etc. –than whether CIC is the most viable form of social business. It feels like we are turning into, by focusing on these “debates”, the policy wonks we bemoan on a regular basis because they won’t fund this or allow that.
    Sure, the debates will occur–but as an offshoot–not centre stage. Centre stage will be the stories, solutions, etc.
    Its early and I am not making much sense–but perhaps you and other influential bloggers like Greenland could start focusing more on trends/stories/solutions/etc. to help the rest of us keep going.
    Your thoughts?

  8. Surely we need both anecdote and data? I personally have seen to many good stories (usually told to win funding) that don’t manifest themsleves into good practice….

  9. I didn’t read the comments at the time so have just picked this up. I think Todd’s got a point up to a point. There is a danger that we can get too theoretical, but I also think part of the value of blogs such as mine, Mike’s or yours Nick is that we debate some of the issues that matter. I don’t see much of that debate happening elsewhere. I think there are plenty of stories out there – and perhaps the reason that as my tone gets more world-weary I get more readers is that there are a number of us who are a bit cynical about the saccharine sweet stories that the mainstream social enterprise cheerleaders feed us. If I read another case study ghost written by a funder anxious to justify their involvement then I’ll go mad!
    It may be also a reflection of the stage of development we’re at. It feels like social business/social enterprise is a sector where a lot is happening fast – and that needs reflecting on/debating. I know this is a slightly daft link to make, but maybe one reason the mainstream economy is in such a mess is that it became unfashionable to listen to the people who said “let’s stop for a minute and think about whether this makes sense.”
    I also think the immediacy of blog debate is great – I’m not quite so sure about some of the more academic stuff though.