Has social enterprise set the bar too high?

Has social enterprise set the bar too high?
Pioneers Post

In an interview with Isabelle de Grave, Jerr Boschee, former advisor to the special Social Enterprise Unit at the UK Department of Trade and Industry, and co-founder of the Social Enterprise Alliance looks at the progress of social enterprise in the US and the UK and warns of the dangers of setting the bar too high.

How has social enterprise progressed during your career?

I’ve been doing this now for 35 years. The social enterprise movement began in the private sector in the US and was a big part of my career evolution. Before the mid- 90s, I was lucky if people were polite to me. Nobody wanted to hear about mixing mission with money.

I was working for the man who is generally credited with having introduced the concept of social enterprise into the private sector, the founder of the Control Data Corporation, William C. Norris. He codified the principles of social enterprise for the private sector when his Fortune 100 company responded to the torching of American cities during the inner city riots of 1967. The company’s strategy was "to address the major unmet needs of society as profitable business opportunities."

Control Data began to use its expertise in computing services to revitalise urban and rural neighborhoods, incubate small businesses, promote alternative energy sources, create jobs, deliver education, and respond to other social needs.

I travelled with Bill around the world from the late 70s into the early 80s as he repeated his message about the transformative power of business. Eventually Control Data and six other corporations created what became the National Centre for Social Entrepreneurs, where I spent sixteen years, the last eight as CEO.

The movement continued to grow slowly during that period but it was almost like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, not many people were paying attention. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that people started coming to my seminars and workshops to find out how to do social enterprise as opposed to asking whether or not they should be doing it. Things changed dramatically in the non-profit landscape as people realised they might have to add business activities to their traditional stew of volunteers, charitable donations and government grants or they may not exist any longer.

Has the movement progressed as far in the UK?

I came to the UK for the first time in 1997, and one of the first conferences I spoke at envisaged the UK in the year 2020. The audience asked me how I felt the UK ranked alongside the US and I said you’re probably five to ten years behind.

In 2000 Tony Blair created the Social Enterprise Unit in the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which was generally recognised as a ground-breaking development. Barbara Philips, then Head of the Social Enterprise Unit, put me on my bicycle for the next four years and had me give formal keynote speeches and conduct workshops on social enterprise in each of the nine regions in England, and in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Towards the end of my formal associations with DTI, I started telling people that the UK had literally blasted past the US in terms of its emphasis on social entrepreneurship. The only trouble with it was, Mr. Blair defined social entrepreneurship, essentially, as almost anything new. It wasn’t the same as what we came to know as social enterprise. There are two schools of thought: social innovation and social enterprise, and most of the activity is currently taking place at the intersection.

Where do you stand on the problem of ego in social enterprise, something Liam Black contends with in his column, letter to a young social entrepreneur?

I’m in agreement pretty much. There are an awful lot of bells and whistles.

I learned my lesson early on at Control Data Corporation in the 1970s when we started talking about addressing the major unmet needs of society as profitable business opportunities. Control Data launched a lot of activities to try to address healthcare and education needs, developed small businesses, and worked in the prison industries. The mistake that we made was trying to set the bar too high and claiming that too much could be accomplished too soon. As soon as one thing went wrong the journalists were all over us. And the same thing is happening elsewhere now.

As Liam says, there are a pack of journalists out there salivating waiting to do some digging around the heroes and halos of social enterprise, not just at the Skoll Foundation. These entities have been very useful for raising the profile of social enterprise, but the problem with raising the profile is exactly that; the profile gets raised. People start making claims, when it’s very difficult to measure the social return on investment. Then, someone does some digging, and it turns out that the claims people are making are based on mist.

So it’s an issue of over-enthusiastic PR?

That’s what happened at the Control Data Corporation and it’s what I’ve seen elsewhere. Often the first wave of stories about organisations in the media will have been very exciting and very positive. If something starts to slip, the next wave is harsh because the expectations are so high.

It’s a matter of keeping expectations at the right level. When you are starting a social enterprise you need to keep those expectations at a very humble level, and not get ahead of yourself. Some of the best social enterprises are those that the great and the mighty have never heard of. They are just out there doing their work.

None of this is unusual, it’s what happens in any arena of small business. But, social enterprise has such a sexy tone to it and people are expecting far too much. They are going to be disappointed, and then they are going to be critical. When they are critical we are going to have to have a shake out, and I expect that will be happening over the next ten to fifteen years.

We have to keep in mind that most of the people that are stirring the pot to gain the attention for the field are not the people who are the social enterprises themselves.
Take the examples of Operation ASHA who work in the slums of New Delhi to eliminate tuberculosis, or Thorkil Sonne who, after his son was diagnosed with autism, created Specialisterne, which is one of the most impressive social enterprises in the world as far as I’m concerned. These are not people that are doing it for the recognition or for the halo. They are doing it because they see something that’s amiss and they believe that they can make a difference.
The only thing that’s changed is that people realise they can do these things by using all the tools normally associated with the private sector. And it’s that blend of what is best about the private sector and what is best about the non-profit sector that we have used to create social enterprise. The people who truly believe in it are not going to quit because one thing goes wrong. They are going to keep going until they find something that works.