Why the Social Entrepreneur Search is exciting…and worrying

The UK likes to position itself as a leader in social entrepreneurship, but in some areas I think we are way behind. Take the new Social Entrepreneur Search widgets in the US, which themselves come from the Social Entrepreneur API. For the non-geeks, an API is tech-speak for an 'application programming interface' which basically provides data or information that is open and available for others to use and do what they will with (as Social Actions put it, "The Social Entrepreneur API dataset is available for any website or
individual to search, syndicate, republish, or use to build web
applications, widgets, and search engines"
). And so these new search widgets and engines have been developed from that data source.

On the one hand, this is tremendously exciting. It's open, collaborative, innovative, connective and potentially helps match social entrepreneurs to investors / funders / journalists / other entrepreneurs in a way that is currently not possible in the closed and more clunky UK equivalents. [I'd include our own online SSE Fellows database in the 'clunky' category, which is currently searchable by field, by geography and by keyword etc, but is not in this kind of shape…yet]. It also opens up the possibility of taking this information and publishing it or syndicating it anywhere: potentially enormously powerful. Kudos goes to Social Actions, Social Edge, and the funders who've both funded the work and contributed the data.

So why worrying? Because the data for these 'vetted' social entrepreneurs only comes from a relatively small range of funders who fund fairly big scale, 'successful' social entrepreneurs (Skoll Foundation, Schwab Foundation, Echoing Green etc). What concerns me about that is that, as with the main Ashoka Fellows programme, the resources and connections and profile are often being diverted to those who need it, in many cases, the least: those who are already credible, sizeable, recognisable and well networked enough to attract funds, gain support and expand their work. Is the risk not of funnelling more resource to the well-resourced, rather than tapping the under-resourced and under-networked into this opportunity?

Partly, of course, I acknowledge that's for us to sort out: if I want SSE Fellows (or UnLtd wants its awardees) to be part of this, then we will have to invest in getting our data sorted for the API, and make the case. And I had that discussion with Social Edge about UK sources. There is also the question, though, of whether these would be considered 'vetted' or credible enough for the project (who judges that?). And yet we know from experience that social entrepreneurs want to discover peers like them (or just ahead of them), not just 'stars' (indeed these extraordinary, unachievable role models can actually deter new entrants), and that funders are interested in new (riskier) innovations, not just credible and mature success stories. Nat Whittemore on Change.org reckons the API / search won't be a supply of much funding, but we also know that those who feature in research, journalism, blogs and profiles end up getting more support and resource in the long run.

Dan Elitzer at Full Contact Philanthropy thinks the widget is potentially damaging because it "promotes the damaging mythology of the social entrepreneur" (a point with some validity that I've answered in the comments on that post), but I think the greater potential damage could come from scaling and championing the few, instead of including, inspiring, resourcing and connecting the many.

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5 thoughts on “Why the Social Entrepreneur Search is exciting…and worrying

  1. Nick,
    I’m not sure I entirely agree with your optimistic comment that: “In Europe / UK, social entrepreneurship is less talked about in terms of heroic individuals creating systemic social change, but about how they create teams, build networks and lead movements that create sustainable social change. And change their world, and the world around them, not necessarily the whole world.”
    We probably are slightly less into heroic individual bullshit over here because, as a society, we’re generally less interested in individual heroism than the Americans but I still think there is far too much emphasis on individual genius and founder’s stories of triumph over adversity in the UK social enterprise movement.
    The more effectively we can bury the myth that social enterprise is something done by specifically amazing people with uniquely innovative ideas, the more appealing social enterprise will become to hard-working pragmatists with moderate opinions of their own abilities but lots to offer in terms of making the world a better place.

  2. Well put.
    I too worry that the search inadvertantly reinforces what Charles Light calls the social entrepreneurship “cult of personality”–a focus on the contributions of a few singular luminaries that leaves thousands of other individuals, teams and organizations striving in relative isolation to build meaningful social change “often reinventing the wheel as they struggle to discern lessons from a relatively small number of exemplary peers.”
    [You can read a more extensive contribution to the conversation here: http://blog.thetippingbucket.org/2010/02/22/social-entrepreneur-search/

  3. Nick,
    As always, I am a fan of yours and appreciate critical thought, so thank you for the post on the social entrepreneur api. I would like to comment on some of your concerns.
    Why are only vetted & successful entrepreneurs included?
    1. You have to start somewhere. This provides a template for sharing data that others can use. Data can be mashed up with other self-identified social entrepreneurs at a later date.
    2. You need to establish social entrepreneur credibility for potential supporters/reporters. By starting with vetted social entrepreneurs, people can feel confident that due diligence has been done to ensure that these entrepreneurs are who they say they are, and are delivering the services/impact that they describe. It is important to consider the needs of donors and investors, not just the interests of emerging social entrepreneurs. This tool helps donor orgs make decisions that will stand up to the scrutiny of their philanthropists, and enables them to leverage the extensive due diligence work of larger foundations.
    3. Showcasing successful models helps emerging entrepreneurs to identify potential partners, discover gaps and complimentary services needed, and to learn from best practices. Pooling these folks in one place makes it easier and more efficient to do research.
    Why funnel more resources to the “well-resourced”?
    1. Well-resourced organizations still need capital to continue to scale their organization and impact. These folks have great models and may be a tipping point where they can dramatically scale their impact (by taking the model into new countries for example) and follow on funding is key to helping these organizations continue to leverage and grow their successful ventures.
    2. Not all feeds in the Social Entrepreneur Search are from funding organizations – many (like Schwab and soon the Tech Awards) are more focused on recognition and connecting social entrepreneurs with providing large dollar resources.
    3. Well-resourced is relative. Feeds from organizations that provide financial support vary widely as to the level of support provided. This is often related to the stage of the organization. As we expand the sources for feeds, we will likely see social entrepreneurs categorized by idea or seed stage, growth, mezzanine, etc. For example Echoing Green serves social entrepreneurs at an earlier stage than Skoll, and funding is commensurate but both provide vetting.
    4. Our feeds may expand to include finalists – who have not yet received funding (and may not be “well-resourced”) but were very close to being selected. These folks are often great finds and the opportunity to bring them into Social Entrepreneur Search is very exciting.
    What about the under-resourced and under-networked?
    1. There is a need to build a database for self-identified social entrepreneurs (leveraging the social entrepreneur api architecture) AND come up with new ways to establish credibility. Here is an opportunity to leverage social networks for example – who is willing to put their name and reputation behind an emerging social entrepreneur? Or if they have not made any inroads with experts in their field, what have they done to establish their credibility – entered business plan competitions? documented a pilot program? Is there a need to collectively create (fund?) a pool of regionally based experts who can “audit” the organization? I think there are great opportunities for some crowd sourced thinking about how you can establish/document the credibility of emerging social entrepreneurs?
    2. Not all self-identified social entrepreneurs are at a stage where they have demonstrated that their solution or concept will work, and some may not be worthy of investment yet – which is why you need #1 to help people find/select based on the level of risk they are comfortable with.
    Overall – what about championing the few over the many?
    1. Agreed! Would love to find ways of connecting all the people who have the initiative and drive to go after solving these big problems. There is much social entrepreneurs at all stages can learn from each other.
    2. Championing the few creates awareness of the many. The media is not great about covering people just starting out, but they love a success story. Without Yunus, would there have been as much discussion about microfinance? There are tons of social entrepreneurs building off the foundation he helped create who are now adding microsavings, microinsurance and in short building out a broader set of financial services for the poor.
    3. The individual social entrepreneur matters. True, no one has ever done anything alone. But also true I think, that the power of the individual can not be underestimated in initiating and building the team to solve these big problems. Another recent article questioned whether everyone can be entrepreneurial, or if this is a rare skill set. I think it can be taught, but that there are gifted individuals who have done amazing things and talking about them can inspire others to start their own ventures.
    In sum, I appreciate these thoughtful contributions and constructive feedback as we build out what will likely become an increasingly expanded range of social entrepreneur data, that also provides the tools to let people view and sort based on their interest “in new (riskier) innovations, not just credible and mature success stories.” There are many things happening in this space. For example, take a look at Gsix.com’s map of self identified players in the field. I look forward to future collaborations and continually improving the tools that are out there for folks wanting to do good, or those wanting to support innovative good ventures around the world.

  4. Jill, I have been following what you and the social actions team have been working on… but completely agree with Nathaniel Whittemore that the impact of this in the context of the larger picture will be negligible. The landscape of social media seems transparent enough… JT

  5. Nick I’m encouraged by your concerns and this discussion. I’m also in agreement by the following statement by David:
    “The more effectively we can bury the myth that social enterprise is something done by specifically amazing people with uniquely innovative ideas, the more appealing social enterprise will become to hard-working pragmatists with moderate opinions of their own abilities but lots to offer in terms of making the world a better place.”
    The power of social enterprise to develop less well off communities for example will only be realised when a large percentage of those communities know what a social enterprise is and begin to see the power in it for themselves and their communities.
    The issue of verification is an interesting one. Is it the same kind of verification that the banks used which created so many in society unable to even get basic bank accounts.
    We need to look at developing new types of communication and societal relationships that can inform, relate, and ultimately build trust.
    As I’ve said for a long time unless this is looked at, in years to come we will still be having some kind of middle class conversation about how we help these poor people and not empowering those communities to help themselves. (not very social enterprise)
    There was an interesting study done in Cardiff last year on how many people even know what a social enterprise is and amongst the average person on the street awareness of even the concept was extremely low! Sorry I can’t point readers to the survey but trust me it happened!