The Long Tail of Social Entrepreneurship

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 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.


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7 thoughts on “The Long Tail of Social Entrepreneurship

  1. I just finished The Long Tail, and I have been trying to wrap my arms around the long tail of social enterprise. I’m certain that the long tail can do for social enterprise what it has done for Google, Amazon, eBay and iTunes. Kiva has given us a glimpse of what the long tail can do for social enterprise. How can I get a complete copy of your paper and all of your slides? Are you planning to make the presentation again? If so, please let me know.

  2. Hi Nathan. Drop me an e-mail. There’s not much more to give, probably. There’s a slightly extended slideset and a brief paper (e-mail me if you’d like), although you have the main gist here. It’s a theory that I’ve used consistently since. I guess I would only say that this is less about connecting social entrepreneurs to the internet, and more about the principles that there are “many” players in this field rather than a few, and that supporting them can achieve as much as supporting the few.

  3. Thanks for this Nick. I think the onus really has to be on the long tail rather than the short head at the moment because the short head is in danger of becoming bloated, self righteous and arrogant and the long tail is soooo underdeveloped.
    The short head is the man on the street talking to himself (no visible mobile phone) who before the onset of mobile phones we would all have assumed was in need of therapy of some sort.
    To talk about duplication now when the long tail is not even formed never mind wagging is not very productive to my mind. I would say bloody hurrah for some duplication for the long tail as that would be some sort of sign we are developing a long tail.
    In brief the long tail is where all of our efforts need to be focused if we are to create the change we all want to see. The concerns about duplication, inefficiency and cost for the long tail may indicate a lack of faith and I see no practical reason for that lack of faith. The long tail will form itself far more efficiently given the information and the tools than the head that talks to itself can possibly do.
    One of the problems we have with the formation of a long tail is that those that will form it perhaps see the “big head” as in the same mould as other “big heads” that have gone before it. That it doesn’t even tell them what it’s all about in the first place, doesn’t understand them, wants them to do the work so it can claim the credit and wont trust them enough to invest in them.
    The development of the long tail has it’s challenges I suspect, just more than most actually realise!!

  4. Weick noted that a preoccupation with failure and refusal to simplify are 2 facets of a learning organisation/society. Social entrepreneurs are often attempting to understand and act to remediate poor systems design.
    Nick, I agree with you in principle but suggest perhaps it’s less about a simplified version of short head/long tail and more understanding about complex, democratised networked learning that we need to think about. To help with this Albert-Laszlo Barabasi has useful thoughts on the nature of network hubs in ‘The new science of networks’.
    If ‘hubs’ act as collective intelligences (communities of practice if you like )then the important factor is the scale free and ‘open’ nature of these networks . Both small heads and long tails must necessarily contribute to the network architecture in ways that do not act to suppress collective intelligence(s) about economic and social failure.

  5. Thanks all for recent comments on a fairly old post (April 2007). I’m not sure I agree with everything in it myself now, though the general thrust remains relevant.
    Jude – thanks for this: looks like I have some reading to do….certainly I wasn’t arguing for an either / or, and creating and building networks that link and connect all along the graph seems sensible to me.
    *scuttles off to order Linked by Barabai* (unless you have a spare copy to lend!)