Mainstreaming of the mavericks
The social entrepreneurship movement has come of age, writes Charles Leadbeater. What now?
They were a ragtag group of misfits and mavericks, heroic figures, seemingly single-handedly bringing jobs, healthcare and education to deprived communities. They were visionary and relentlessly optimistic, but practical and pragmatic. They self-consciously applied business methods to social problems, but weren’t motivated by profit. This iconoclastic, inspirational, sometimes frustrating and often self-promoting group did not even have a name for themselves.
That was 10 years ago. Today we would recognise this breed as social entrepreneurs: people who mobilise often neglected and undervalued resources – youngster written off by the education system, buildings left derelict – to address significant social needs.
Since I first helped to popularise the term in The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur, the idea and the movement it helped to spawn have come a long way, fed by an eclectic mix of church groups, venture capitalists, philanthropists, former political activists, community businesses and the rise of corporate social responsibility. Critics complain social entrepreneurship is a vague idea. But the reason it has grown is because it is so plastic, ambiguous and adaptable.
In the UK, social entrepreneurship has grown in the shadow of the state, providing services commissioned by public money. In emerging economies in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where state provision is weak, social entrepreneurs have created large organisations that provide everything from education, Aids advice and eye operations to micro-credit. In the US, venture philanthropy funded by the socially conscious super-rich has spawned a new breed of high-growth social ventures, infused with the ethos of Silicon Valley.
The best estimates suggest that globally this ‘third sector’ employs around 40 million people, with 200 million volunteers. In Europe, social enterprises employ 3.5 million people. What started on the margins has become increasingly mainstream. Ten years ago only Michael Young’s School for Social Entrepreneurs provided courses; now more than 30 universities around the world run fully fledged programmes. In the UK, government has played a critical support role, for example with the creation of a new legal entity – the community interest company – to accommodate enterprises that make money to do social good.
The social entrepreneurship movement has started to help itself more. The trail blazed by Ashoka, which has supported more than 1,500 social entrepreneurs around the world, has now been built on by foundations such as Skoll and Schwab, and initiatives like the Community Action Network.
What have we learned about social entrepreneurship in its first decade of significant growth? As well as getting quite a lot right, we got quite a lot wrong. Entrepreneurship usually comes from teams, not heroic individuals. Social entrepreneurs thrive on interdependence, learning and borrowing resources from the public and private sectors.
The biggest challenge facing the social sector is how to scale up its impact. Too many social entrepreneurs are still running inspiring but small schemes. Too few can show how their inspirational new approaches have spread. Part of the reason is a lack of both capital and management skills to expand larger organisations from smaller roots. Opposition from entrenched bureaucracies and professionals is another factor. But social entrepreneurs may have their biggest impact by being disruptive innovators, opening up markets that bigger organisations cannot see. A prime example is the growth of the fair trade movement.
Where might this movement be headed in the next 10 years? The potential for growth is huge. The internet is opening up new avenues for social collaboration. Social entrepreneurship will come from many more sources. It needs to become a mass activity, not just the domain of inspirational mavericks.
The other thing that has changed is the recognition of need. In Uganda over 2 million children have been orphaned by Aids. By 2010 more than 100 million people worldwide will have been affected. More than 2 billion people lack access to decent sanitation and more than a billion do not have clean water. Half the world’s population live on less than $2 a day: they desperately need innovative solutions to basic social problems.
· Charles Leadbeater is a visiting fellow at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University and author of The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur, available free to download at www.demos.co.uk. The Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship is taking place from 27 to 29 March at the Saïd Business School.