Sustainability Action Blog


No straitjacket required: Why we won’t evangelise social enterprise

By Julia Kendal |

Guest Blog by Pathik Pathak

Let’s face it: there are lots of people who are frustrated, even infuriated, that social entrepreneurship cannot be reduced to social enterprise. For these people, concepts such as social business have the power to redeem the bankruptcy of markets and the decrepitude of charity.

It is social enterprise, after all, which is the backbone of the social investment market, which will transform (and possibly redeem?) capital markets forever.

It’s a shame, then, that some of us are skeptics. It’s a shame that some of us are discomforted with the idea that social innovation should be squeezed into a for-profit straitjacket when evidence and history tells us that campaigns, movements and non—profit ventures, like the Living Wage Campaign, the Good Gym and Streetbank, among many others, among many others, would not be as successful as businesses. It’s a shame that a narrow conception of social enterprise is incongruous with social missions driven by outcomes rather than outputs.

The question of mission and outcomes are prominent in my thoughts because we are in the early stages of launching a Social Innovation Lab at the University, consolidating our social entrepreneurship and social innovation programmes. We are committed to evidence-led social design which tackles the root causes rather than the symptoms of a social challenge. This approach was encapsulated in microcosm through our social innovation challenge series, launched in November. Through new university research we learnt that mobility was a primary cause of acute loneliness. The social innovations emerging from the design process were therefore geared to redress this underlying cause, such as a scheme to place health science students on national internships with older people living on their own.

Some solutions might lend themselves to a for-profit format (like the one above) whereas others, such as an after school history club, did not. Simply because they were not social enterprises had no bearing on their effectiveness or sustainability (especially when they were low resource, or simply involved a transfer of existing resources to a more effective solution). Where a for-profit model had the potential to scale an intervention without compromising social returns, but we won’t shoehorn a social innovation into such a model unless we have reason to believe it will deepen or broaden their outcomes.

There’s also folly in assuming that the only feedback a social venture needs are market signals. Charities are not destined for terminal failure because they’re not exposed to the market, and treating users as customers is no guarantee of quality (if it was, why do so many people want to disembowel everyone who works at BT?) Especially when questions of care are involved, transactional models can be incredibly damaging (especially among the most vulnerable, including ethnic minorities).

We know that there is a gaping disconnect between the mission and social returns of many celebrated social enterprises. The one for one model, for example, made famous by Tom’s Shoes, has proliferated across the world with more than whiff of febrile fetishism. It might be a straw man, but it is still a dangerous model riddled with flaws and unintended consequences. The same is arguably true of microfinance. From an evidence-led perspective these weaknesses derive from a dangerous conflation between outputs and outcomes: assuming once you hit delivery targets you can stop thinking too hard. It is a conflation evidence-led social design should avoid because it draws on methodologies that rigorously and relentlessly interrogate all assumptions.

Now it’s true more than a few universities have become hot and bothered about the intoxicating Third Wayness of social enterprise. You can see how it happens, particularly in an increasingly fevered higher education marketplace with most institution desperate for a compelling employability related USP. We have sought to resist these pressures and maintain the critical distance that allows us to commit to social innovation without prejudice.

This reflexivity also allows us to keep ourselves alive to the immanence of radical critique in our very practice; the idea that social innovation should challenge and generatively remake social relations even as it addresses social problems. We consider this to be hopeful practice, based on the idea that the act of social innovation stirs new creative and human connections, so that each collaborative endeavor contains within it the seeds of the next, and the next.  Implicit in this reflective practice is recognition that neoliberal ideologies such as heroic individualism have had the catastrophic impact of spawning and entrenching our post-social malaise. Alloying innovation practice with reflexive intellectual practice has to be a foundational principle of our mission, even if governments, social investors and even research councils consider the latter to be a nuisance.

This critical reflexivity also dictates that we, as a university venture, should be wary of committing ourselves to a model which is as ideologically over-burdened as social enterprise. Not only would such partiality compromise efficacy, as argued earlier, but it delegitimises our core strength: the capacity – and credibility – to unify diverse voices to solve a given problem. As I’ve argued before, universities should step up to the challenge of assuming the role of civic anchors, and that historically many Russell Group universities have punched woefully below their weight in this regard). To be an effective civic anchor we need to be above partiality: we can’t be perceived to be corporate stooges or government lackeys. It is our simultaneous relevance to charities, business and government that is the foundation of our success, both in offering students exposure to perspectives across the ideological spectrum and in harnessing diversity for creativity and innovation.

No one denies for-profit models offer creative opportunities for innovation in the delivery and sustainability of social change; you don’t have to look too far for success stories. It undoubtedly buoys the scope for disruptive solutions to entrenched social challenges and we’re not on an idealistic crusade to preserve old methods or institutions.

Rather, as a university venture anchored by research and innovation, we should keep it in our toolkit, but not be foolish enough to think it will be the right tool for every job. We also need to be critically aware that social enterprise evangelists don’t abide by the same creed of reflexivity and neutrality that we cherish.