Why social entrepreneurs won’t save us — building a better economy requires growing a movement
Tom Rippin is the CEO of On Purpose and writes about the hurdles that social enterprises need to overcome in order to have a global impact.
The time of “heropreneurs” has past. Over the past decades there has been increasing glorification of the heroic social entrepreneur. That is not a bad thing in itself, however I believe we now need to start shifting our focus beyond the entrepreneur for several reasons.
Efforts in attracting, supporting and developing social entrepreneurs have been spectacularly successful. The likes of UnLtd, Schwab, Ashoka and Skoll foundations have done an incredible job of nurturing inspiring founders. Even in France (where I’m reliably informed they don’t even have a word for entrepreneur) you can’t visit a business school without being inundated with posters advertising social enterprise business plan competitions.
The difficulty is no longer around catalysing the creation of social enterprises: According to UnLtd, 27% of entrepreneurs in the UK are starting businesses with a social or community purpose and this has led to three times the proportion of organisations under three years old in the social enterprise space compared to the commercial SME space, according to Social Enterprise UK. The challenge now is around getting social enterprises to become a significant and influential part of the economy. After all, how many national (or even international) social enterprises can you name?
The challenge of how we should help social enterprises grow their impact has, until recently, been the preserve of social investors who develop new instruments that provide social enterprises with flexible yet financially sustainable growth capital. But increasingly all parties involved, from governments to social entrepreneurs are realising that there is critical talent challenge to overcome if the social enterprise movement is to have the transforming influence we all expect of it.
It is a well-acknowledged in Silicon Valley, that the right person to start an enterprise, is rarely the right person to grow it, and the person to grow an organisation is rarely the right person to steer it once it has matured. Each stage of organisational growth requires different skills, motivations. Social enterprises are no different from commercial businesses in this respect. Finding and developing current and future social enterprise leaders who will help scale social enterprise to its full potential is what we have been doing for the last seven years at On Purpose, where we run a one year, full-time leadership programme for emerging leaders transitioning into a social enterprise career.
There is, however, a more subtle point, why the era of the lone entrepreneur has past. The vast majority of problems we face today that really matter are so complex that they will not be solved by a single entrepreneur, or a single organisation. The fundamental changes required to create the society we need, will only emerge from whole communities of people and ecosystems of organisations experimenting, collaborating and innovating together. And moreover, at least some of these organisations need to be able to operate with considerable scale.
What does this mean for talent priorities in the social enterprise movement?
First, we need to find, attract, develop and retain talent that relishes the scale challenge. Finding people who have been part of growing and large organisations (and most of these are found outside of social enterprise) is a clear priority. If we are to attract the brightest and best to do this, we do need to celebrate growth and scale, not just the start-up of organisations; and more appropriately share out the glory currently lavished on entrepreneurs.
Second, as a movement we need to find a sense of collective purpose. I have recently been thinking about some of the movements that shaped social progress in Victorian times (an age with startling similarities to the times we are living through now): the Quakers and the Salvation Army, for example, and I believe that we could do with some of the fervour that they were infected with. In looking into some of these organisations, it has struck me how moralistic we, as modern observers, feel them to be. But maybe their moralistic (and often religious) enthusiasm is something we can learn from, in the way that it can bind communities together and galvanise support and action across large numbers of communities. The Salvation Army, for example, operates in well over 100 countries. For all its antiquated-seeming marching bands, tea-total approach and military language, that is an impressive reach. No doubt it has its critics and its approach and religiosity will not be for everyone, but the impact it has around the world cannot not be overlooked.
Social enterprise intermediaries like ours have a role in helping to knit together a movement of people and organisations around the greater purpose of societal progress. We have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that the social enterprise movement adds up to more than the sum of its parts. To attract the best people we need to be surer about what social objectives we stand for and, dare I say it, the moral fervour we harness. It will require greater care in how we talk about social enterprise and different parts of the movement to articulate their purpose in clearer and simpler terms. Like any marketer will tell you, the clearer and more specific we can be, the more we will broaden our appeal.
Finding the best people to join our movement and giving them all the development and experience we can, is the least we can do. In the Victorian era, everyone who wanted to be anyone became an engineer — that is where innovation was happening; in the 1980s and 1990s everyone who wanted to be anyone became an investment banker — that is where creativity (for good or ill) was being rewarded; let’s make sure that in 2010s and 2020s everyone realises that if you want to be someone who works towards something that matters, social enterprise is the place for you.