Some social entrepreneurs and social enterprises are expressing the desire to avoid such a label. Additionally, knowledge among citizens of what social entrepreneurship is and means is still generally low, even though the sector has been around for several decades. What might be amiss? I argue that the ongoing failure to coalesce around a recognised definition or model of social entrepreneurship is part of the problem, revealing risks and opportunities for the sector at a worldwide level.
My research on social entrepreneurship in England suggests there are three different – and only partially overlapping – conceptions of what social entrepreneurship is and of how it should be supported. The first and most prominent part of the sector is focused on the concept of social enterprise, that is, businesses trading for social purpose. It is very heterogeneous in terms of players involved and ways in which social enterprises are described and organised. Within it, the main source of funding for both social enterprises and sector intermediaries is the government, and both the citizen and business sectors are mostly seen as customers.
The second and more “niche” part of the sector is more cohesive and focused on social entrepreneurs, described as lone heroes disrupting the system to eliminate the root causes of social inequality and injustice. Here, the role of the government is very limited and businesses and charities are seen as advisors and funders, rather than customers, while communities are the beneficiaries.
The third one, despite being the original conception of the term in England and the most widely adopted “on the ground”, is presently the most neglected by the public discourse. It describes social entrepreneurs and enterprises as acting to enhance their communities, either through involving community members in economic activities and decision making, or redistributing resources within a given area or population of interest. In this part of the sector, boundaries and players’ roles are very blurred and there are multiple typologies of social entrepreneurial activity, sometimes overlapping with other areas above.
Is this division a trivial matter interesting only for academic debates? I argue that there are a number of important practical issues, which either directly or indirectly stem from the lack of a clear definition. First of all, it hinders the ability of government or international bodies to create tax benefits or effective funds to support social entrepreneurship. Without being able to constrain the field of organisations entitled to receive such support, such efforts are frequently ineffective.
Secondly, the lack of a clear definition contributes to maintaining low levels of knowledge about what social entrepreneurship and social enterprises are, and what their value for society is. This, in turn, often hampers their ability to attract private funds. I know, indeed, from the interviews I conducted for my PhD project that some social enterprises and entrepreneurs face the problem of being perceived as “too business-like” for foundations, charities and private donors and “too social” for traditional investors and businesses (and sometimes even for the social investment sector).
Thirdly, the lack of a clear definition means that it is also much harder to establish roles and rules of interaction within the sector. Businesses are sometimes requested to be commercial partners or to involve social enterprises in their supply chain and sometimes they are requested to act as advisers and philanthropists. Government and local authorities would like to outsource public services to social ventures rather than to businesses but often they find themselves unable to distinguish between the two and to obtain the guarantee that there will be no “mission drift” once a contract is awarded.
Finally, the lack of a clear definition implies a lack of clear sector boundaries and of a clear positioning within the wider economic system. Many supporters and insiders continue to proclaim their hope that social entrepreneurship will become mainstream and either change the way that all businesses operate (‘social enterprise’) or will make the whole third sector more efficient and financially sustainable (‘social entrepreneurship’). Can these things happen while the sector keeps pushing in different directions, thus reducing its relevance both within the business and the third and public sectors?
I would like to conclude this post with two thought-provoking questions. First of all: why not refer to social enterprises as sustainable businesses? This might be the first step to merge this part of the sector with movements such as the B Corporations, in order to jointly represent a new, more socially-savvy side of the business sector, able to ask for tax incentives and to attract social investors and funds. Social entrepreneurship could be reserved as a definition of innovative projects carried out by third sector organizations trying to tackle the root causes and not just the symptoms of social issues, thus distinguishing them from the traditional charities and NGOs delivering fundamental but more traditional social products and services. Activities not fitting with these two definitions but that are important at community-level could be labelled as “community-based entrepreneurship” or just be re-included in the broader third sector.
Secondly, can sector supporters and intermediaries try to find a compromise sector definition accepted by all? As expressed by some interviewees contacted for my PhD research, the most influential organisations in the sector appear to be connecting and networking with one another but are in reality very territorial. They all hold on to their own conception of social entrepreneurship and they all hope to drive the sector in their desired direction, thus making it increasingly difficult to find a solution to the definitional and support debate. Sometimes creating a good ecosystem of support might entail stepping back and coordinating what happens as a skilled director rather than as the star of the show. Allowing the formation of clarity around the sector, its definition and its boundaries, while continuing to lobby and campaign for it, might really unlock those financial resources, public support and understanding that many organisations are craving for.
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.
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, Alex Shapland-Howes, gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Mobalizing a Movement: More in Common”.
How many articles have you read over the last year about the rise of populist politicians? How Brexit and Trump were caused by a great divide within our societies? How xenophobia so easily becomes the go-to response?
Almost all the articles end with something like “…and we must start acting now to fix this”.
But perhaps the thing that’s been most alarming is the lack of ideas as to how we should go about tackling these issues. Lamenting their existence is an important start – few of us had appreciated the scale of the problem until recently – yet of course without deliberate, concrete actions, it’s hard to see the situation changing.
This week at Skoll World Forum, I heard from an amazing group of people who are founding a new organisation to stimulate the changes they want to see. Led by Gemma Mortensen, Tim Dixon and Brendan Cox, More in Common will focus on five key areas:
Public opinion research
It’s easy to make assumptions about the views of individuals or groups across society, but to make deliberative change successfully, we need to listen very carefully to each other. We often hear, for example, that there’s a divide between liberal cosmopolitans and what could be termed ‘angry nationalists’ in our societies. More In Common’s detailed research has found that whilst that divide very much does exist, roughly half the population have mixed views and don’t fall into either camp.
Communications strategy for key influencers
Getting the messages right is critical to winning this battle. Brendan Cox told the audience that what we often call populism is actually just bigotry and hatred. A huge amount of work is needed to get the balance right between appeasing the dangerous views of some and genuinely listening, acting on the valid concerns of others.
Convening and building broader coalitions
This work is inherently political but to succeed, it has to bring people with it across the normal divides. Organisations that normally wouldn’t take a political stance might do so if everybody was part of it. If More In Common can show that the most hate-filled views aren’t part of the same continuum – that they’re another, far more malevolent force – then they will try to get businesses, civil society, the media and more to stand up against it.
Partnerships will also play a key role. We heard the example of how the Jo Cox Foundation has organised The Great Get Together in partnership with everyone from Oxfam and the Women’s Institute to the Premier League and The Sun. Across the UK, 10 million people are expected to get gather with neighbours on 17-18 June to “be part of a national celebration of what we have in common”. Amazing!
We all know the power of social media. We heard less about this but there are plans to mobilise a ‘base’ of supporters to lead a movement from the bottom up too.
More In Common is new. There was little push back from anyone in the room at Skoll World Forum, few in the room who disagreed and this is arguably the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.
But the group running it are incredible. I was sold.
They are thinking, they seem to be listening and they have concrete plans for what to do next.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Skoll Scholar and MBA Candidate 2016-17, John Kakungulu Walugembe, gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “We the People: Populism and progress“.
We the People: Populism and progess panel
When President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to seek the Republican party nomination, under the slogan, “Make America Great Again”; many considered this to be one of the many publicity stunts, he had become famous for: The Daily News compared him to a clown, the Trentonian’s headline was: “I am rich”. On the contrary, the Boston Herald cautiously predicted that Trump’s running, would be impactful. Well, in the end, they were right. Contrary to mainstream predictions; he went on to clinch not only the Republican party nomination, but also the Presidency of the sole superpower – the United States of America. How could an individual with no political experience get himself elected using xenophobic and misogynistic tactics? My view is that we should have seen this coming. The rise of populist leaders like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France in the recent past is well documented. These leaders seek to discredit the establishment by labelling it “corrupt and dishonest” as compared to “regular, hard-working and honest” people. They also tend to appeal to nationalistic sentiments by attributing the challenges faced by “ordinary folks” to “immigrants from other countries” or what they consider to be unfair dealings, by other countries or institutions.
One is compelled to ask several pertinent questions? What explains this surge in populist sentiment across the West? Is this a new phenomenon or history has had precedents? Are there economic explanations for this phenomenon and if so, how should the world respond? I do not think that there is a single explanation for this rise in “populism”. However, many researchers admit that there is a linkage between the rise of populism and economic inequality, in the west. There is no doubt that globalization, technological advancement and the rise in immigration have led to tangible benefits for humanity, as a whole. However, it appears, they have also led to the disenfranchisement of significant sections of society; who now feel, “ignored and left behind” Rising levels of national prosperity have been accompanied by a growing gap between the “haves and the have-nots”, due to unemployment, redundancy and low wages. The 2008 financial crisis, in particular, led to an explosion of anger among those who felt that the system had been “rigged” to favour Wall Street and the establishment. It is therefore not surprising that populist politicians have tended to exploit and benefit from the economic grievances of the unemployed and working class who have been hit hardest, by the forces of the “market”. Donald Trump has referred to this adverse economic situation, as the “American carnage” in which American factories were shattered, millions of American workers left jobless and “their wealth” redistributed. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the President and CEO of New America cautiously agreed with this position in today’s session, when she talked of the brokenness in America’s infrastructure, campaign financing system and policy framework that may need fixing, if the system is to work for all.
On the other hand, others have attributed this rise in populism to socio-cultural factors. According to this school of thought; the shift in the value system of western societies over the last forty years away from traditional to liberal/secular values, was bound to elicit a backlash. Older citizens in these countries look suspiciously at the left’s liberal agenda, including support for; human rights, immigration, gender equality and LGBT rights. The hosting of refugees, the openness to immigration and the granting of asylum to individuals from volatile and troubled parts of the world, elicited resentment and xenophobia, in this group. Demagogue politicians have therefore exploited these fears to capture power by democratic means; a view shared by Ernesto Zedillo, the Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. For example, Nigel Farage and the Vote Leave campaign in the UK promised to cut net migration to under 50,000 and to reinvest the £350m which they claimed the UK sends to Brussels each week, in the National Health Service (NHS). No wonder, in a 2014 press conference, Nigel expressed his discomfort at hearing only foreign languages being spoken by other passengers, on a London train journey. Unfortunately, such racist remarks simply serve to solidify his support base.
It is interesting that populism is not an entirely new phenomenon. History is full of examples of populists who have appealed to popular discontent and gotten elected: From Lajos Kossuth in Hungary, Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy to the more recent examples in Latin America. Perhaps, Latin America, more than any another continent, has had the largest share of populist leaders such as; Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Alvaro Correa in Ecuador, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Morales in Bolivia. What lessons can we draw from these countries in tackling populism? I consider their context to be quite different, from the one in the West.
As I close, I wish to be optimistic; by proposing solutions: First, it is important that there is a recognition, on both sides of this issue that certain things need to change. It is true globalization has been beneficial to humanity, as a whole. However, some sections of society, feel excluded. As such, there is need for better regulation of markets to ensure inclusion of the most vulnerable. National economic growth must translate into prosperity for everyone. Investments in social services and job creation for low skilled workers, is key. As Emma Mortensen, the co-founder of Crisis Action, mentioned in today’s session; we must create a society that works for everyone. In my opinion, this is where social entrepreneurship can become a game changer. Second, it is important that we listen to each other. The rise of social media, has had the unintended effect of facilitating siloed debate. People choose with whom to interact, based on common interests; and tend to avoid those with whom they disagree. This deficiency can be addressed by facilitating conversations among groups that may be on opposing sides of issues. Finally, we must learn to listen to each other. As Emily Kasriel, the Head of Editorial Partnerships and Special Projects at the BBC World Service Group advised in her closing remarks; we should look out for people with whom we do not necessarily agree, on issues and listen to them.
John is a Skoll Centre Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA programme, he is also the founder of Better-Livelihoods Uganda, a community-based organisation working in rural areas of Uganda to improve the livelihoods of poor and vulnerable people.
Alex Shapland-Howes is a 2016-17 Skoll Scholar and is leading the way for social mobility within the UK’s deprived communities. After his early career as a teacher, he discovers what it’s like to be on the other side of the classroom again at Saïd Business School!
It’s been almost ten years since I was last a full-time student. Having worked in education ever since, it felt a bit odd to go back to the other side of the classroom in our first week.
We are working towards a day where a child’s background doesn’t limit their future options
I’ve spent the last five years leading the expansion of the education charity – Future First. We are working towards a day where a child’s background doesn’t limit their future options. In the UK, we have one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world. The correlation between parents’ earnings and those of their children remains stubbornly close.
Alex being interviewed on UK channel, ITV News.
The problem is incredibly complex, but one key challenge is that young people from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to have positive role models in the world of work. Half don’t know anyone with a job they’d like to do themselves and a quarter goes as far as to say that ‘people like them’ don’t succeed in life.
By helping state secondary schools reconnect with their alumni, Future First is changing those statistics.
Having grown up in the same place and had some of the same teachers, former students can have a transformative effect on the lives of today’s young people – volunteering to deliver careers talks, act as a mentor, or support the teaching of a lesson related to their job.
Over the last five years, we’ve expanded the organisation to work with more than 10% of all secondary schools across the country. Even more excitingly, we’re starting to see the growth of alumni networks beyond our own work.
Our aim is to lead the creation of a genuinely national culture of alumni engagement. Every young person deserves a role model they can relate to, regardless of their background.
I started to look for opportunities for professional development…I wanted to learn what the textbook says about leading teams, developing long-term strategies and running efficient organisations.
Whilst we’ve had great success in growing the organisation and its impact, I started to look for opportunities for professional development about 18 months ago. Perhaps inevitably, we didn’t get everything right, but having moved straight from being a secondary school teacher myself to leading an organisation like Future First, I wanted to learn what the textbook says about leading teams, developing long-term strategies and running efficient organisations.
I came across the Skoll Scholarship by luck, but as soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to apply. I feel incredibly privileged to have the chance to spend a year learning from the world-class experts, reflecting on my own leadership journey and working with amazing people from all over the world. (And they really have been amazing and from all over the world!). There’s not a chance I’d have had been able to do this without the support of the Skoll Centre.
It’s clear from the first few weeks that it’s going to be hard work, but I feel unbelievably lucky to have this opportunity and I can’t wait to carry on making the most of it.