Recently I’ve referred a couple of times to the ‘long tail of social entrepreneurship’, which has been an idea bubbling round SSE for a while. It essentially came out of a policy agenda we had been promoting (social entrepreneurship for the many not the few, democratising the opportunites for involvement, encouraging new entrants from all areas and backgrounds), combined with a reading and understanding of Chris Anderson’s now-very-famous Long Tail theory (see also the Wikipedia entry). Having discussed this with Rowena Young at Skoll, we agreed to do some investigation, start the debate, and work towards a joint paper.
Effectively, the Long Tail says that the internet has changed economics and culture by democratising the tools of production, decreasing the costs of distribution, and providing effective filtering via recommendation.
To use a practical example, an author with an expertise in Nepalese death metal might have wanted to publish a book on the subject. In the past, it is likely that a) this would have been expensive for him or her to produce, b) a publisher would turn him down because there’s a limited audience and because c) a bookshop would never stock it (limited shelf space and they want to stock books that sell) because, also, d) the limited audience might never find it (due to geography, limited channels to it etc.).
In the world today, he or her could start a blog on the subject for free very easily, get it published on demand by Lulu.com or something similar, get it stocked on Amazon, and reach his limited audience without incurring massive costs or several bottlenecks and barriers along the way. Why? Because the tools of production (writing/publishing), the costs of distribution/stock (Amazon effectively has unlimited shelf space) and the power of the internet to filter for an audience (Google/recommendations) allows it to happen.
And what does this mean for Amazon? Well, they can get as many sales from 6 sales of a million books as from (to take the Borders / Barnes & Noble / Waterstones bookshop model) a million sales of 6 books. The long tail, of niche products with niche audiences, can now provide aggregate sales on a par with the blockbusters and bestsellers. And it also allows diversity to thrive, and a greater variety of needs (eg. those of Nepalese death metal fans) to be met.
OK, so that’s my "long tail in a nutshell", although the pages above explain it better…and the article and book better still. What has this to do with social entrepreneurship? Well, imagine that instead of products (like books or songs) we were talking about social entrepreneurs and their organisations. And imagine that instead of sales, we were talking about social impact. Because a lot of talk or focus on this sector (be it definitions, venture philanthropy, investment types, awards etc) is on scaling, and the need to scale the social impact that social entrepreneurs are having in order to address the large problems we face. No disagreement there.
What this long tail argument points out is that this scaling of social impact could be achieved not only through a scaling up of a few selected organisations (who get big investment, high-end consultancy, media promotion, awards etc), but also through a scaling out of opportunities to many individuals. Effectively, to return to maths equations for the first time in twenty years, this is pretty simple:
small number (of social entrepreneurs) x large size (of activity) = large-scale impact
large number (of social entrepreneurs) x small size (of activity) = large-scale impact
So, the argument goes on, we need to give as much attention to scaling up the number of opportunities (support/information to graduates, long-term unemployed, people living in ‘deprived’ areas, retirees etc.) for social entrepreneurship, as we do to scaling up a much smaller number of what have been identified as successful and replicable approaches.
But it’s not that simple, of course. There are pros and cons to both approaches:
– The short head (scaling up a few) should be more cost-efficient, avoid duplication and reinvention, and be quicker in achieving larger impact; it is also useful as a point of entry (stars promote the concept to the masses)
– Meanwhile, the long tail is potentially inefficient, slower, and more expensive (duplication of admin and back offices of lots of small organisations etc.)
– the long tail delivers solutions that are local, niche and fit-to-purpose, empowers many people (allowing us to find new stars and new innovations), and delivers benefits through and within organisations as well as by the direct impact they deliver (for example, confidence and skills, diversity in leadership, local wealth and job creation, community participation/involvement, wellbeing & health, active citizenship etc.)
– Meanwhile, the short head risks delivering top-down generic solutions, being elitist, fewer new leaders and innovations emerging, and pressuring organisations to scale before they are ready/proven
There are also limits to how far we can apply the theory or lens of the long tail, but it does raise some interesting questions:
– what are the "tools of production" for a social entrepreneur, and how can we "democratise" them? (appropriate support, networking, information, skills, investment?)
– if the architecture of the internet, and large-scale access to it, made the internet long tail wag, what architecture and access issues are there in this field?
– filters allow us to find quality in the long tail (and help them move up it): what are they in this field? (the support organisations? people like New Philanthropy Capital?)
– the long tail needs a head to thrive (and vice versa in this model), so how can they interact and co-operate?
That is the gist of the paper we presented at Skoll (I’ve only cut the introduction to SSE and some of the findings from our evaluation out: these were there purely to illustrate that we’ve supported people in the head and tail, and that the wider benefits of the long tail are clear from our decade of work) and we ended by saying:
– this is not an either-or debate (it’s an "and-and" one), but the emphasis may be too heavily on the head/stars at the moment
– we need to understand how to best maximise the benefits of the long tail but mitigate the risks (duplication etc.) [most succinctly put by Hugh Morrow at our seminar]
– we also need (and put out the question to this effect) to view this debate, and get viewpoints, from different countries where the field may not be as populated as the UK
Finally, just a big thanks to everyone who contributed to this work whether through unattributed comment or through deep debate. Particular thanks to all those who came to the seminar at Skoll and helped shape the next stage of the work (including Charles Handy, no less). For those who might find it of interest, here are the key slides from the powerpoint, starting with our vision of social entrepreneurship (please note that ‘community’ can be geographical or a community of practice), before plunging into the world of the long tail. Feel free to disseminate, with attribution, and also feel free to give us your thoughts on all of the the above on this blog.