Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow Tanja Collavo hosted a workshop at Marmalade 2017 on the strengths and weaknesses of the social entrepreneurship sector in England… and where next.
The State of Social Entrepreneurship in England – Strengths, Issues, and Solutions.
What is the state of social entrepreneurship in England? In the course of my DPhil research at Saïd Business School I interviewed key people at social entrepreneurship organisations, revealing a snapshot of strengths, weaknesses, worries and ambitions for the future development of the sector. At this workshop I presented some of my findings and asked participants to give their thoughts and elaborate actionable proposals around the issues most important to them.
The debate was lively! The overall agreement was that the sector is growing, vibrant, diverse, exciting, and constantly changing thanks to the very low barriers to entry. Its core strengths are its ability to break silos across sectors and organisations, and its democratic nature, encouraging bottom-up solutions to social problems and the retention of the wealth produced at the local level. Additionally, the perception is that the quality of products and services delivered by social enterprises is constantly improving and that this is a great business card to increase their market penetration both in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets. In this sense, many workshop participants welcomed the shift of the sector towards business and believe that more and more social enterprises should aim to become business-savvy and competitive.
But participants also agreed that there are still many key issues holding back the growth and success of the social entrepreneurship sector:
No one talks about failures
There is very little learning inside the sector because media, intermediaries, social entrepreneurs and enterprises talk a lot about successes but hardly ever about failures.
The passion paradox
Most ventures start because of founder’s personal experience with or passion for the problem they are trying to tackle. This has obvious positives but also can lead to a “do something now” mindset promoting easy solutions and immediate action more than the elaboration of long-term strategies. Further consequences can be the lack of professional sectoral knowledge and lower inclination towards collaboration due to high levels of personal ownership and commitment, also associated with stress and burnout.
Difficulty accessing supply chains
A third issue present in the sector is the low presence of social entrepreneurial organisations in supply chains, both in the business and in the public sectors. In fact, in most cases, social ventures are too small to bid for contracts and too young to have a proven track record that would facilitate their winning supply or service contracts.
Too dependent on government and poor finance
Participants described the sector as still too reliant on government and as lacking appropriate financial support matching its funding requirements and specificities. Financial support was described as particularly scarce at regional and local level, with core sector and financial intermediaries being based in London and mostly focusing on organisations and areas geographically close to them.
Lack of collaboration amongst support organisations
Finally, the group agreed on one of the main findings of my research projects: the lack of collaboration among sector intermediaries. This leads to a duplication of efforts and to a degree of confusion among social entrepreneurs and enterprises about where to look for support and how to reconcile the different messages they hear from the different intermediaries they are affiliated with.
Out of this list of issues, the workshop participants picked two areas that they thought were especially relevant in order for the sector to keep on thriving: the access of social enterprises supply chains in private and public sectors, and the low collaboration among sector intermediaries.
Social entrepreneurship in supply chains
The group tackling the issue “access to supply chains” found several core causes for this issue. Some causes can be attributed to failings of social enterprises themselves:
a lack of transparency and metrics that would lower the perceived risk of social ventures;
a low understanding of tender processes;
and the inability of social enterprises to scale and integrate or collaborate in order to bid for big projects and commissions.
Other challenges are created by the surrounding ecosystem:
procurement practices and contracts that do not favour the involvement of social enterprises and small organisations in supply chains of corporations and public bodies;
the existing regulatory environment;
and the still low recognition of the value and specifies of social enterprises outside of the sector.
Proposed solutions to improve the situation relied on the involvement of social entrepreneurs and enterprises and/or in that of sector intermediaries. Social entrepreneurs and enterprises should, with the help of intermediaries, lobby both the government for changes in legislation regarding tendering processes, and private companies to convince them about the possibility to collaborate with social enterprises to enhance the sustainability and credibility/effectiveness of their CSR practices. Furthermore, on their own, social entrepreneurs and enterprises should collaborate to win contracts and present stronger evidence about their performance and competitiveness, which would reduce the perceived risk for procuring organisations. Finally, sector intermediaries and research bodies should: analyse where the Social Value Act has worked; prove the benefits of values-based supply chains; and ensure social ventures involvement in supplier network platforms like Ariba.
Increasing collaboration amongst intermediaries
The second group of participants decided instead to work on the problem of low collaboration among social entrepreneurship sector intermediaries. The origins of this situation can be found in the presence in the sector of multiple umbrella bodies and intermediaries that publicly state that they are cooperating and collaborating with one another but in reality are very territorial and not interested in what other intermediaries do because “they occupy a separate niche in the sector”. In addition, many intermediaries have very specific views and beliefs about the definition of social entrepreneurship, about what the sector should look like, or about its role in society. This makes it difficult for them to really collaborate beyond sporadic cooperation for specific projects and events.
In this case, the proposed solution was to start from existing successful platforms involving several intermediaries (such as the Social Economy Alliance) and create a “network of networks”. This would have shared ownership and governance, would avoid exclusive definitions, and would initiate collaborations among different organisations around specific projects, such as “improving the access to supply chains for organisations in the social economy”. Cooperation on specific projects could be a starting point to create trust and a mutual understanding. At the same time, this “network of networks” should map out all the different intermediaries present in the sector and develop an online list differentiating organisations according to their core competences and easily accessible for organisations interested in obtaining support from the ecosystem. The creation of such a database would simplify the research process for individuals and organisations in need of help and would create the opportunity for intermediaries to understand where their respective strengths are and, thus, for sharing best practices and outsourcing to each other non-core activities.
The meeting finished with some networking and the hope that these solutions could lead to some concrete initiatives in the sector as well as to other opportunities to meet and discuss also the other issues present in the sector and ways to solve them in a collaborative way. Is anyone there up for the challenge? From my side, the door is open to anyone willing to know more or to jointly organise something along these lines to help the social entrepreneurship sector as well as other parts of the social economy grow and thrive even more.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My Oxford is the Oxford of Saïd Business School, and within that, it is the busy hub of social entrepreneurship that is the Skoll Centre. Our programme delivery team and the entrepreneurial individuals we champion and work with are heavily biased towards execution and have a tendency to hurtle towards action. A full hour planning meeting for a new programme would be a long one for us. A day spent conducting research before moving into designing a new initiative is rare.
Thankfully, our Centre exists in the heart of a different Oxford – an Oxford which stretches between our Park End Street, down to Magdalen Bridge, and up to Summertown, and is home to those who prize evidence above all else. This Oxford is made up of people who might find the idea of launching headfirst into implementing a new solution without understanding the problem as well as they possibly can quite ludicrous.
So, last week, the week of the Skoll World Forum, when a good proportion of the global social entrepreneurship ecosystem poured into our ancient city, we conducted an experiment. Early on a Thursday morning, we deliberately gathered 30 ‘practitioners’ and 30 researchers interested in social impact, to consider how we bridge the gap between research and action to create better social and environmental outcomes, and to hear from those who are doing this already.
Our own Julian Cottee provoked us by outlining why the Skoll Centre thinks these unlikely bedfellows need to cosy up. He put forward that researchers can help us to better understand social and environmental problems, as well as the efficacy of existing solutions. He noted that research can support the innovation that needs to happen in the gap between the problem and existing solutions, and can assess the impact of social innovation, aiding better decision-making and allocation of resources going forward. Researchers also may have the perspective to guide which initiatives should be replicated across geographies and disciplines. Finally, they can consider the structural frameworks and power dynamics which underpin this social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make the criticisms that those of us who are too close to the action are ill-positioned to make.
Over breakfast, we heard rapid fire pitches from those who are already in long-term research/practice relationships – like Muhammad Meki, an Oxford development economist who is designing a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of microfinance for micro-entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is part of Mars Inc’s Mutuality in Business project, based here at Oxford Saïd.
The energy in the room was tangible, and the Skoll Centre will follow up to understand if the group found this first experiment useful, and what connections formed. We are also available to entrepreneurs/practitioners who want to tap into the Oxford research community in order to accelerate the impact of their work. We’ll have a thought leadership series on the role of academic research in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem coming out later this year, and look forward to receiving contributions to that from those who helped shape this early conversation.
Finally, we are excited to live out our belief in the importance of research as an informant and shaper of social innovation, with the expansion of The Global Challenge to institutions across the world in 2017. The Challenge is a Skoll Centre founded competition that requires students to display a deep understanding of a chosen problem and its existing solutions, rather than jumping to developing a business plan. We’ve been amazed at the ‘ecosystem maps’ that are resulting from this Challenge, and invite the public to join us to see the outputs at The Global Challenge final, here in Oxford on 1 May.
As Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of The Global Challenge and author of Tackling Heropreneurship, has succinctly put it – action without knowledge is foolishness, and knowledge without action is selfishness. It is the aim of our Research for Action initiative to help develop a cadre of wise and selfless partnerships in the pursuit of powerful impact.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17, Ashley Thomas, draws on this year’s Skoll World Forum theme in relation to social impact business models.
There is a fault line between models of international development financing. On one side, there is the traditional donor and philanthropic capital that utilises grant money to support projects. On the other side is the social enterprise space that seeks to create sustainable impact through revenue generation. There has been a lot of excitement in utilising grant funding for social enterprises to build and tweak their business model, but to date there has been little appetite for true hybrid models of ongoing subsidies for social enterprises.
This is a conversation that I had in numerous sessions and coffees throughout Skoll World Forum. It was also one of the key themes from the session hosted by Mercy Corps and USAID on sharing the learnings from their investments in the Innovation Investment Alliance. There is a common ground emerging; these conversations are hinting at the start of innovative new business models that allow for hybrid grant and revenue streams.
Social enterprises are addressing market failures. They bring products or services to underserved markets, often at low margins, and often at high costs. However, market failures exist for a reason; many companies are realising that even at scale, high volume low margin products are not able to generate the revenues that are necessary to be sustainable. However, social enterprises often sell themselves on this vision- that with initial capital to pilot and build systems, they will be financially sustainable at scale.
Philanthropic capital- which does not require financial returns, can help bridge this fault line, and maximise the potential impact of social enterprises. This does not mean we should revert to the large scale unsustainable development models of the 1990’s, but use philanthropic capital as way of targeting the market failure and allowing social enterprises to maintain their focus on their mission and outcomes. This hybrid model is being utilised in the FundiFix hand pump repair service designed by Dr. Rob Hope out of the University of Oxford. The model uses monthly user subscription payments to pool capital to finance prompt hand pump repairs. However, the willingness to pay only accounts for 2/3 of the cost of the service, and the remaining cost is subsidised through grant funding. This is also used in much larger social enterprises. Ella Gudwin from Vision Spring spoke about how their model has shifted from seeking to maintain cost recovery- and retailing glasses at increasingly higher prices, to minimising the “philanthropy per pair” and serving their target customer. They were able to do this under a scaling innovation grant from USAID and Mercy Corps, demonstrating that donors are also recognising the need for the pivot into these hybrid models.
It is increasingly clear that there is not one single model for social enterprise, and a single-minded focus on achieving commercial sustainability may limit the impact. Innovative hybrid models that use the social enterprise ethos of cost effectiveness in combination with smart grant funding that can subsidise the product can address the market failures preventing social enterprises achieving impact at scale. There is immense opportunity to achieve scale and impact through creating this common ground.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Kaleem Hawa, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Rights and Resources: Indigenous Communities and Environmental Conservation”.
The session began innocuously enough: a cold, hard April morning in Oxford; the delegates filtering in quietly; an introduction and then a prayer, delivered by Mandy Gull, Deputy Chief of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi.
The intention of the panel was to discuss environmental conservation and the preservation of biodiversity in the context of Indigenous lands, communities, and ways of life. The talk would quickly blossom though, into a more fulsome articulation of what Indigeneity looks like in the wake of modern industrialisation and the challenges posed by corporations and governments on its actualisation.
Most noticeable at the outset was the optimism – an excitement that time and space had been dedicated on the agenda to talk about Indigenous rights and conservation, that this would elevate the kinds of voices that tended to go underrepresented in international fora. The panelists did not dwell on this type of laudatory self-congratulation for long though; they were incisive, critical, and energised.
For instance, we heard from Flaviano Bianchini, the Founder and Director of Source International, about mining conglomerates in the Peruvian Andes, whose systematised border readjustments forced Indigenous communities onto less fertile lands and whose waste water pollution poisoned rivers and the people who relied on them. We heard from Mandy about the Québec logging companies, whose concerted deforestation threatened essential traplines and strategically deconstructed Indigenous self-autonomy to favour economic ends. Nicole Rycroft, the panel’s lively and eloquent moderator spoke of an unsparing system that – left unchecked – would lead inexorably towards “a simplification or even eradication of the natural biodiversity of that ecosystem and, with that, a degradation of Indigenous cultures that are so inextricably linked to that land.”
This was a panel that displayed in stark relief how Indigenous communities co-exist with the land. If the relationship between man and land in Western culture is largely predicated on a dominion narrative, Indigenous peoples see their traditional territories as sources of strength and life, and their communities come to occupy a role that is simultaneously that of steward and dependent.
As one would expect, this normative difference manifests itself in vastly divergent approaches to conservation and biodiversity. Victor López Illescas, the Executive Director of Ut’z Che’, the Guatemalan Community Forestry Association, works with more than 50 communities across Central and Latin America. He spoke of the essential work being done by Indigenous peoples in the region; according to the statistics, they inhabit more than 95% of all key ecosystems for biodiversity in Central America and are actively engaged in protecting these essential lands and estuaries. He goes on, “from Mexico to Panama, Indigenous peoples and local communities hold legally recognized rights on 65% of the forests remaining in the region, more than any other part of the world” – something that informs why rates of resource exploitation are so much lower in these spots than in others.
This optimism is tempered by the realities of implementation; these protections provide little solace, according to Flaviano. “There is a double standard. On one side, natural protected areas are imposed by governments as a barrier on aggressive expansion by industrial urban-led development models. But these natural protected areas are being decided without consultation with Indigenous peoples, overriding their local governance systems, local knowledge, and demonstrated tradition of protecting those areas.”
This is why groups like Source try to play translator roles. Their hope is to rigorously identify and corroborate abuses and use them as the basis for legal challenges to exploitative business practices. This type of evidence-based approach must, it is emphasised, be done in concert with – not in the place of – the existing advocacy being done by Indigenous communities.
As a Canadian, the most resonant part of the event was the discussion of the Waswanipi Cree First Nation and their efforts to protect the Broadback Valley – a dense old-growth forest home to incredible biodiversity and history. It was fascinating to learn from Mandy about the emphasis on hunting, fishing, and trapping on the land; individuals inherit a family trapline, and become stewards of that land, monitoring the resources and hunting sustainably. Their livelihoods are cyclical: in the spring they go to the bush camps to goose hunt, in the summer they fish and pick berries, in the fall they hunt moose. In a world in which one “cannot be Cree without Eeyou Istchee [The People’s Land],” the push to force communities to stratify traplines for logging leaves indelible effects on lives and cultures.
“I feel like I live on a faultline,” Mandy says in a stinging reference to this year’s Skoll World Forum theme. She continues, “When I flew over the Broadback and saw those clear-cut areas, in that moment I really mourned for what I knew my family had lost. Some of the paths in the Broadback have been here for a thousand years. My father asked me to protect our trapline, my father told me to make sure the trees were never cut. So yes, you can cut down a tree. And yes, then you can plant a new tree. But you have not recreated the forest. There is no way for man to recreate what nature has achieved.”
This poignant portrayal of loss defies easy categorisation. A host of structural challenges are working against these communities: exploitative industry abetted by apathetic or complicit governments, a quickly degrading international commons, and a lack of public attention or momentum.
This panel and others like it should serve as a rousing call to action. So much more needs to be done.
Kaleem Hawa is a PhD candidate in health policy at Oxford University’s Big Data Institute, studying on a Rhodes Scholarship. Follow Kaleem on Twitter @kaleemhawa
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Gillian Benjamin, Oxford MBA at the Saïd Business School, shares key takeaways from the Skoll World Forum session “Making Leadership Great Again: Breakthrough Educational Models”.
In the lunchtime session directly prior to this panel, Bill Drayton, Founder and CEO of Ashoka, implored audience members to help others understand the implications of the new world order in which the repetitive actions of a machinist on a factory floor, or a line manager in a multi-national company, were fast becoming redundant. He highlighted the need for a radically different skill-set and ‘growing up system’ to give young people the competencies needed to thrive in environments of constant and rapid change.
During the panel on ‘Breakthrough Educational Models’ the founders of two innovative institutions, both based in the global South, shared key ingredients of their success.
Jose Zaglul, Co-Founder and former President of EARTH University shared the story of the establishment of the institution he helped set up. The campus, based in Costa Rica, offers an innovative four-year undergraduate programme in agricultural sciences and natural resources management with one crucial difference from ordinary degree programmes – the technical and scientific knowledge gleaned on the course is just one of the four pillars that make up the curriculum. The other three pillars ensure that students leave with a deep social and environmental awareness, the attitudes and values needed to drive change and the lived experience of having set up their own entrepreneurial venture. EARTH has 430 students from 41 countries, 83% of whom are from rural communities.
Hopping across continents to South Africa, co-founded and CEO Chris Bradford shared the story of the African Leadership Academy (ALA), ALA is a two-year pre-university programme based on the UK A-Level system, combined with unique curricula in Entrepreneurial Leadership, African Studies and Writing and Rhetoric. ALA currently has 264 students drawn from 47 African countries, with many graduates going on to study at some of the most prestigious universities around the world before coming back to the continent to drive growth and development. One such example is Moroccan panelist Jihad Hajjouji who is an ALA alumn currently pursuing her MBA at the Stanford Business School.
When discussing the ALA curriculum Bradford stated with respectful veneration that Zaglul was his personal hero and had been a huge inspiration to ALA as they crafted their programme two decades after the formation of EARTH.
Three key lessons can be drawn from the success of these two institutions:
1) Create opportunities for youth leadership
Recruiting students from underserved communities can be challenging as prior academic performance can be a poor shorthand for future potential. Zaglul shared how a track-record of civic action in teenage years helped EARTH identify and recruit the most promising students, many of whom lacked the top grades of their peers from more privileged contexts, but who made up for this through exhibiting tangible leadership capabilities. Such leadership skills, developed through implementing projects to improve their immediate contexts, point to an understanding of their personal agency and a world-view that sees the status quo as malleable and open to improvement through personal action.
Youth social action projects therefore play an important role in the development of young change-makers, and serve as important identifiers to institutions who are driven to recruit talented students from underserved contexts where quality primary and secondary school instruction may be lacking.
2) Put the emphasis on learning, not teaching
Bradford shared a word association game he has tested the world-over: To begin, think of words associated with ‘school’. Then follow the same process for ‘learning’. Having played this game with educators and students from all corners of the globe the results are resoundingly similar:
When asked to think about ‘school’ people mention nouns such as headmaster, teacher, bell and test. ‘Learning’ rarely appears in the top five most-mentioned associations.
When asked about ‘learning’ people talk about things like discovering new skills through stretch experiences and the value of engaging with inspirational mentors to guide them on their journey.
The contrast in the associations is stark and points to the need to explicitly redesign our education apparatus in a way that fosters experiential learning. Bradford calls for a radical re-organisation of how we deliver the educational experience through two key shifts:
Educators need to shift from thinking about learning as the delivery of content towards the learning as nurturing the key skills students need to hone.
The learning environment needs to shift from a space where the teacher is seen as an imparter of knowledge to a peer-learning space where students learn from one another and the teacher through experiential projects.
3) Inspire teachers to rethink their positions
Passionate teachers strive to replicate the best classroom experience they had as students and in many contexts this means replicating the best lecturer who had the clearest notes on the board.
To shift to a new norm that truly serves students, institutions need to expose their faculty to radically different versions of best-practice to support them in refashioning outdated ideals they may be striving towards. This involves exposure to new teaching practices to support them re-imagine their roles.
She commented, “To tackle the many challenges that stand between us and a just and sustainable world we need a global army of young leaders who combine character, confidence and capability.” The lessons extracted from the work of EARTH and ALA highlight exciting leverage points to help transform education systems from those that merely equip students for repetitive work to those that foster the competencies, care and concern needed in our current socio-economic context.