The transparency of social entrepreneurship

A little while back, I blogged about why the (increasingly tedious) political expenses scandal in the UK was relevant to the realm of social entrepreneurship [see What the expenses scandal means for social entrepreneurs]. My point, largely, was about the importance of trust and legitimacy to the work of social entrepreneurs, and the associated importance of honesty and transparency to achieving and maintaining that trust.

I think the same applies to the agencies operating in the sector to support social entrepreneurs and social enterprises as well, though. If we spin, overegg, over-heroicise and overplay the success of the people we work with, there is a risk of not giving the full picture. Particularly when, particularly in the start-up space, success can look very different for different people. Indeed, my stock answer when we are asked the question "What is success for SSE?" is to say exactly that: success looks different for different people coming through the programme. For some, the journey is primarily a personal one in which, it could be argued, the project or organisation forms a vehicle for learning and development; for others, the organisation flies and grows; still more thrive in the months immediately following the programme, whilst others find new employment or civic roles they wouldn't have accessed before.

[Or as NEF put it in their evaluation of our work, “For some, the SSE acts as a [place for] fine-tuning, giving them the
ability to move forward with their project in a variety of ways and to
create a greater impact than they would have otherwise. For others, the
SSE is nothing less than the difference between existence and
non-existence of their organisation and profound change within their
own lives"

But we have to be open that there are myriad and multiple outcomes, few of which can be "guaranteed" for each social entrepreneur. Not all create jobs and not all establish organisations, and some decide, ultimately, that this world is not for them. Others find they prefer to use their new skills + networks to work in (more secure) employment. Others fall out of contact or self-select out of being communicated with about where they are at. And the more honest and open we are about those in our communications and measurement work, the more people will trust the positives and successes we also talk about. That needs to be done sensitively, of course, but it's crucial to not set unrealistic expectations with the students, our funders and supporters and, indeed, ourselves. That's something I'm emphasising as we look forward to forthcoming research and evaluation projects.

We can get better at this, no doubt, and so can others. I attended a social entrepreneurship seminar at London Business School the other evening, hosted by Professor Michael Hay, and organised by Teach First for their ambassadors (I got a few SSE students a free place). It was an interesting case study, in the MBA style, of a South African organisation called CIDA, which I remembered from the Skoll Awards a few years back. Professor Hay was involved personally in the organisation, and (what turned out to be) the turnaround of it, so had great knowledge and insight of what had happened.

I think, largely, he doesn't want all the details spread around / broadcast widely and I want to honour that, but suffice to say that the original founder of CIDA is no longer with the organisation, and is now running the Maharishi Invincibility School of Management, and that the new board / executive team of CIDA has now developed personal development programmes for students that don't relate to transcendental meditation, consciousness-based education ™ and so on. Draw your own conclusions etc…

What surprised me is that I hadn't heard about this at all. Whilst acknowledging that this is a very high profile initiative (particularly in South Africa), there is an enormous amount of learning to be had frmo this example. Ironically, enough, transparency is a massive part of it (it wasn't clear what lay behind / what the ultimate motivations were), as is a blurring of the social entrepreneur with the organisation. The people present the other evening felt that this was forgivable in the early stages (when the social entrepreneur, after all, pretty much is the organisation), but that there needed to be proper governance, management processes, structures for stakeholder involvement etc when the organisation grew. Perhaps there are reasons why the full story can't be openly shared (I don't know), but the learning for the sector could be significant.

What a great session this would make at an event or conference, from one of the funders or support agencies who backed CIDA in its previous incarnation. It's now back on the rails on its original mission and is set, by all accounts, to continue to thrive….but would be fascinating to hear about a 'failure', be that a failure of due diligence, of governance, of blurring of individual with organisation, or of something different. After all, there's entrepreneurship in social entrepreneurship, so there's risk…and it's about being risk-aware, not risk-averse. But that awareness only comes from a willingness to be open and share examples, not through a head-in-the-sand approach.

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4 thoughts on “The transparency of social entrepreneurship

  1. Nick,
    Please can you explain why transparency and openess are any more important in a social enterprise than in any other business that wishes to respected by the communities that it serves. What is it that is unique to social enterprise that makes the difficult concepts of transparency and honesty especially relevant here?
    Surely all ‘good’ businesses are as honest and transparent as they can be. However there are always real limits; genuine tensions to be managed about what information can be shared, when and with whom. These limits exist whatever the extent of your ‘social’ aims.
    And, is openess to publish and reflect on learning from both success and failure as in the example you cite above really about transparency? Or abour fuelling progress?

  2. Hi Mike.
    Had I said that, I guess I’d feel the need to explain??! But I would like to see a world in which all businesses do operate as accountably and transparently as possible (notwithstanding the real limits, as you point out).
    Obviously this blog comes from a social entrepreneurship standpoint, though. Our experience would show that because social entrepreneurs are self-appointed, there is an earning (and learning) of legitimacy along the way (i.e. what gives them the right to do this….on behalf of / with this community etc). That sense of legitimacy and credibility comes from different things: governance, legal structure, proof of quality of service, effective measurement, consistency in building/maintaining relationships etc, and also transparency of operations.
    Generally, because social entrepreneurs have a social mission and operations that set out to involve / serve a particular community, and because they are more likely to get their income from public money or even charitable trusts, that legitimacy (or trust) becomes important to their progress. Moving beyond a risky, innovative project to a credible, trusted organisation, I guess.
    But, as I’ve often written on this blog, the sectoral boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred, and there are plenty of businesses from all sectors who face similar issues or who need to earn trust in this environment. And I think it’s fair to say that the expenses scandal has stepped up the need for transparency and accountability across the board (only yesterday, it was announced that the expenses of the top 250 (or was it 25?) civil servants will be published quarterly online, for example).
    In answer to the final point, I’d say both! The example is about transparency because that was at the heart of why, effectively, people didn’t understand the true motivations and mission of the social entrepreneur(s) involved.
    Further to that, as I write above, I think the support/funding agencies need to be open about when things go wrong / don’t turn out as expected. So transparency on our part as well, to the extent possible (as you say, there are limits in a range of areas, as I hint above about this case study) Otherwise, the movement as a whole is open to the charge of only selling success. And we’re not going to progress if we hide away failures or knocks or barriers or challenges.

  3. Nick
    Your blogs just get better and better. It’s deeply unhelpful to new social entrepreneurs if all the role models are made out to be heroes or saints, and the same is true for us as support agencies. I’ve got a new mantra in doing talks about social entrepreneurship – no halos/no lycra. We’ve done some “answer time” events recently where successful but still early stage social entrepreneurs answer questions from new starters honestly, warts and all. How you deal with problems and weaknesses is whats useful. UnLtd’s own story, of a powerful consortium coming together to create the agency only to fall on each other when they won some funds, and how that had to be sorted out by my predecessor in a very tough (and successful, bless him)way, is a powerful learning story for consortia.
    But the sector media love a scandal, and Third Sector mag in particular seems to relish exposing problems and weaknesses as though they are signs of utter failure. So its understandable if some agencies are careful with the news.

  4. Thanks Cliff. Agree with much of the above. And the consortium story is an interesting one, indeed: many different versions and interpretations too! With the positive postscript being that most of the same founding organisations (albeit with different CEOs) have come together more recently to promote a policy agenda around social entrepreneurship and achieve funding in partnership.