Keeping social enterprise grounded: 15 mins with Alastair Wilson
The School for Social Entrepreneurs celebrates its 20th birthday this month. Alastair Wilson was among its first cohort of entrepreneurs and is now its chief executive. He talks to New Start about the power of peer learning and the need for a different lens of merit
On the early days
I was a student in the first year of the School for Social Entrepreneurs. It was set up by Michael Young and social enterprise was then an emerging concept. The students were passionate about social change but were also pragmatic. These were the days of Tony Blair and the ‘third way’. It was about trying things out and having a go, seeing if you could sustain social mission and impact through trading. I was 27 and had an idea for a project around homelessness but I wasn’t brave enough to do it on my own. The ingredients for being a social entrepreneur were there but the knowhow wasn’t. It’s called a school but it’s far removed from abstract teaching and learning. It’s not about filling you up with knowledge, but about behaviour and mindset and confidence and legitimacy. It all fell into place for me through listening and watching the other students in my cohort. Most students wouldn’t bill themselves as social entrepreneurs, especially in the UK. That individualistic terminology doesn’t wash. To me social entrepreneurship is a democratising term: it’s about rebels so driven about a subject that they are willing to take a risk and do something different.
On action learning
We now have more than 1000 students coming through the school each year and the same approach used in the early days – action learning – is what we use today. Students come to us in cohorts and learn from each other and from those who have been through the journey already. Social entrepreneurs share their stories and the issues they went through. It addresses the softer skills people struggle with when they are trying to get something going and it provides role models. The students go from feeling like freaky outsiders to being in a cohort of others doing daring activities and hearing from people like Tim Smit and John Bird. It becomes normalised and the hang- ups people have evaporate. You might have a mum on an estate wanting to set up a learning library. She is likely to feel pressure from naysayers and people thinking she won’t pull it off. But when people come to the school and meet their tribe and learn from others’ failures, people become stronger. This approach has stood the test of time.
‘Social investment needs to be more relevant
to poverty and disadvantage and broken markets’
On social enterprise as a means of shifting power
We work on a social franchise basis and have branches around the country and staff and boards that are locally knitted into that place. A quarter of our students come from the communities they seek to change. It’s often people who haven’t had the best start in life or the highest education. The school gives them the practical tools and knowledge and confidence to create something. It’s about shifting power to people who, by dint of their life chances, haven’t had much of it. Half of our applications come from the 20% most deprived wards and 25% are from BME groups.
On developing a different lens of merit
The watchword for the future for social investment and for the School for Social Entrepreneurs is reach. Social enterprise can be an engine of growth as long as you don’t adopt the idea of meritocracy where the more educated and able rise to the top. Michael Young’s book The Rise of Meritocracy was published in 1958 and is a satire on the notion of unbridled meritocracy and what happens to those born without merit. The public and private sectors have now both co-opted meritocracy, so the social, voluntary and community sectors need to apply a different lens of merit. If you take the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the solution lies with that community. It is they who have great merit in that equation. In traditional measures of merit they may have low skills, but if we can bottle their experience and understanding of community and unleash that energy and passion, they are best placed to offer solutions that are authentic and work.
On regeneration as letting a thousand flowers bloom
We worked on the Clapham Park estate in London during the New Deal for Communities era. It was incredible to see this big regeneration scheme land on the community. We recruited from within the community and created a programme bringing together a group of people to learn from each other. They became so close and understood how to deal with bureaucracy and systems and be nimble and make things happen. Regeneration should be about investing in people and allowing them to offer a way forward. If the objective is to empower people you can’t go in and use the parent/child approach. That approach infantilises communities. As messy as it can seem you have to support and allow a thousand flowers to bloom.
On the need for social investment to be more relevant
The social investment world needs to be more relevant to poverty and disadvantage and broken markets. If you’re running a social enterprise on a poor estate, perhaps a community café, you can’t charge £2.50 for a cappuccino, you are barely keeping it going. The idea that enterprises like that can take on a pile of debt is fanciful. As the social investment markets grows it needs to be aligned to its ultimate objective, which is to reduce poverty. The solutions ultimately have to include a level of grant to indemnify broken markets – but where’s the money?