Is it the Dunkirk spirit, a short-term response to crisis? Or an idea that has met its time? Although objectively there are plenty of reasons for people to be fearful, and the recent national statistics social trends survey seems to suggest that the British are becoming more suspicious and less inclined to help their neighbour, social innovation is not only alive and well, it is thriving like never before: that, at least, was the impression taken away by participants at a vibrant and absorbing Foundation forum on the subject on 23 November.
Of course, you’d expect anyone who sets up a social enterprise to be an optimist. But even allowing for self-selection, the buzz around social innovation is infectious. ‘It’s a tidal wave,’ claims Cliff Prior, Chief Executive of UnLtd, a charity that this year helped 1,300 social entrepreneurs to get started. ‘We are seeing a number of clones of ourselves starting up across the world. We don’t create them, people come to us and say, can we replicate it, and we say yes. Right across the world more and more people are wanting to combine a life that earns them and their family a reasonable living and makes them feel proud when they come home at night. That’s a change, and I think it’s fantastic.’
Others testify to a similar movement. Take Pennies, the ‘electronic charity box’ that allows consumers to make micro-donations when they use bank or credit cards. In its first year, Pennies has taken one million donations, adding up to an extra £250,000 that has gone into the coffers of 20 UK charities. The British are ‘incredibly generous’, says chief executive Alison Hutchison. The issue is not persuading people to cough up, she says: it’s making it compelling and easy for them to do what comes naturally.
Jamie Cowen, a social entrepreneur whose day-job is advertising (he describes his career as moving from advertising to useful), agrees. There is no dearth of people eager and willing to help others; rather the reverse. As founder of the website Let’s Do Something Nice For Ashraf (Ashraf Haziq, the foreign student robbed as he lay wounded on a London street during the riots), he has first-hand experience of spontaneous public willingness to rally round for a good cause. The site raised £23,000 in a matter of weeks. But he also picked up on another trend: the willingness of business to contribute. Business gave a bike and dentistry, proving that the urge to give is (nearly) universal – ‘it’s the most dynamic force that I’ve seen in society at the moment’.
That chimes with something else. While some of the impetus for social innovation may be a reaction to the hardship of recession, more, surely, derives from a kickback against the wave of iniquity, greed and despoliation that has emerged in the last few years from ‘legitimate’ business – indeed, that caused the recession. In his latest book, What Matters Now, ‘ardent capitalist’ Gary Hamel argues that faced with growing consensus on the havoc they have caused through unchecked corporate power and greed, corporations now must take on board a simple fact: citizens now expect companies to be ‘not only socially accountable but socially entrepreneurial’ – not passive but active. This maps out the ground on which social innovation, CSR and a more human form of capitalism might meet.
The sub-issues that The Foundation had challenged the three speakers with were around how to get people into action in ways that helped others in a sustainable fashion, and directing the effort where it was most needed. As Charlie Dawson noted in his summing up, these concerns rapidly soon appeared a bit condescending. There is no issue about creating desire. It’s already there. One in two Britons donates, one in four volunteers, and about one in 30 becomes a social entrepreneur in some form, even if often very small. In total, 1.7m people lead some kind of community or social venture. The vast majority of ventures are informal, but 10 per cent employ others. One in 1,000 social business takes on 100 or more. UnLtd’s average grant is £2,600, but three years on, on average each concern will have created six jobs, 15 volunteering places and be training 30. Eight-five per cent will have survived, and 7 per cent will have moved on to a second venture. ‘These are staggeringly good figures,’ says Prior. ‘And it’s not us: it’s them.’
The issue, then, is not generating the motivation to act – Cowen is surely right that the desire to and pleasure in helping is hard-sired into human nature – but creating the practical outlets for the urge. Says Hutchinson: ‘One, it’s got to be compelling: people have to have a vision that they believe in that they want to get to behind. Secondly, it’s got to be bloody easy and, thirdly, you’ve got to feel like you’re making a difference, because if don’t you won’t keep going’. In the case of Pennies, the aim is to use technology to bring the act of giving up to date. Without Pennies, as we move away from physical charity boxes, there would be less of it. But enabling is also about breaking down barriers in other ways. The activity, says Cowen, has to be right for ‘people like us’. Hats off to Christian Aid Week, which reportedly mobilises more people than D Day, but not everyone wants to be associated with the church. Others are turned off, or on, by the idea of the Big Society. As many people will be repelled by a corporate involvement as attracted. Interestingly, most social entrepreneurs come from the less well off parts of society, and 80 per cent of those supported by UnLtd have lived with the problem they are trying to solve. Business experience actually comes well down the list of predictors of success at social entrepreneuring.
Everyone agrees that government has a role to play in lowering the barriers to legitimate entrepreneurship. ‘In Britain we’ve devised a system where it’s easier to do bad, so long as it’s not terrible bad, than good,’ notes Prior. Entrepreneurs will be entrepreneurs, and if they can’t set up a youth club (health and safety, CRB checks), fine, they’ll set up as gang leaders or drug dealers instead. That badly needs to change. At the same time, governments should beware of making the same mistake with social entrepreneurship as they have with charities. When the last administration insisted that, for example, advisory charities merge as a condition for getting central contracts, it effectively killed the local passion and identification that fuelled the volunteering in the first place.
Passion isn’t subject to economies of scale. This suggests that welcome though the ‘new CSR’ is at corporate level (think M&S’ Plan A, powerfully presented at a previous Foundation forum, or Google Ideas, the search company’s newly created social innovation unit which aims to use Google’s own processes to amplify and ‘innovate innovation’ in a social context), it is complementary to, not a more efficient substitute for, social innovation at community or street level. Communities don’t need to be taught what needs to be done, and if they know that they have the talents and skills to do it, plus the motivation to sustain the effort because that’s where they belong. ‘Is the Big Society a means for the government to evade its responsibilities?’ ponders Prior. ‘Do you know what, I really don’t care, because the government won’t be here in four years’ time, there’ll be another one. What I care about is that the concept of us collectively acting for common good is such a powerful thing that even if they didn’t mean it, we do.’
The Foundation’s view
To echo Simon’s comments, we started with the assumption that successful social innovation is about creating the desire to do good things and then directing it to where help is most needed. We have learnt from the examples of our speakers that we were wrong on both counts. It’s not about generating the motivation to act because there’s plenty of that out there already, usually from people inspired by seeing an issue first hand. It’s about removing the barriers that get in their way. And it’s not about directing activity. It’s trusting that at an aggregate level the issues people are touched by represent a balance of where help can be usefully received.