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Why research matters for social entrepreneurship

Author: Julian Cottee

University social impact centres like the Skoll Centre are contributing to the growth of social entrepreneurship in a number of important ways, examined in a recent report authored by the Bridgespan Group, with the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll Centre. One side of the work of our centres is educational: we raise awareness of social impact with the student body, and equip future professionals and leaders to work in the sector. This work and its future development were explored in an article series curated by the Skoll Centre in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

But besides educating, the other USP of social impact centres is our position at the heart of knowledge-generating research institutions. Bridgespan’s report highlighted two key contributions to come from leveraging our academic connections. First, our ability to convene practitioners and researchers to support learning and innovation; and second, the generation of actionable insights for social entrepreneurs. Two of the report’s key future opportunities for Centres also focused on research: the development of clusters of deep specialist expertise to support the evolution of practice; and the cementing of social impact as a recognised academic field, attracting legitimacy and funding to our efforts in this area.

Academics and social entrepreneurs are not always easy bedfellows. The stereotype is that academics are meticulous, long-term, big-picture thinkers, answering questions driven by curiosity. Entrepreneurs by contrast are risk-takers, impulsive, and focused on specific, immediate needs. There are many exceptions to these rules, but it is also true that academic incentives and the time taken to do in-depth research work make joint working between researchers and practitioners more difficult. And then there is the language of academia, which can be all but indecipherable to non-experts.

It is worthwhile, then, pausing for a moment to consider what there is to be gained by overcoming some of these barriers. We think that the potential is huge for research to further accelerate the impact of social entrepreneurship.

Here are six reasons why we should be doing more to bring these worlds closer together:

  1. Understanding the problem landscape: Research can allow us to gain a deep understanding of the landscape of the challenges we are trying to address – whether the challenge is homelessness in Oxford, or global climate change. Engaging with researchers gives social entrepreneurs the knowledge they need to formulate effective interventions and to think through systemic or unintended impacts.
  2. Understanding the solutions landscape: This is about knowing what has already been tried in tackling the challenges we are addressing: what has worked and what hasn’t. But it is also about the political economy and power dynamics of institutions in the solutions space. Very few ideas are really ‘new’ – building on successes and avoiding past and present failures can be a key to impact.
  3. Ideation and innovation in the impact gap: Researchers are in a brilliant position to be innovators. They can see the landscape of problems and solutions from above and creatively iterate new ideas in the ‘impact gap’. This is not only about innovative products and services, but innovations too in the wider ecosystem of governance, regulation, finance and knowledge.
  4. Assessing the impact of initiatives: Robust and defensible methods are at the core of academic research, allowing the production of credible evaluations of social impact. Such independent assessments are critical for leaders to make evidence-based decisions and can also be a powerful tool in policy advocacy and attracting funding and investment.
  5. Connecting the dots across silos: Researchers are able to spot commonalities and spread ideas across boundaries that might not otherwise be bridged. Through their networks and their public-facing activities, researchers can transport and translate knowledge of successful models across geographies and sectors, or across otherwise poorly connected organisations in the same sector.
  6. A critical birds-eye view: Academics are in a privileged position of being able to see glimpses of the ‘big picture’ that most of us are too buried in our day-to-day tasks to spot. They can help us to reflect on the social entrepreneurship model within the wider global picture, to understand trends, and to ask the hard questions about how well we are really serving the beneficiaries we are working for.

Academic researchers working in many of these important roles gathered for breakfast at the Skoll Centre during Skoll World Forum Week 2017 to discuss how we can do more to bring together research and practice. They were joined by social impact practitioners from a wide range of organisations with clear knowledge needs, keen to find new ways of collaborating. We think that university social impact centres can help to realise the benefits of doing so by connecting partners, catalysing new research, and communicating actionable insights. We invite your participation as we explore further in this area – please get in touch with your ideas and comments.

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