The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur
by Charles Leadbeater
(90pg, published by Demos 1997)
available from Central Books Ltd.
99 Wallis Road, London, E9 5LN
tel 44(0)181 986 5488
fax 44(0)181 533 5821
In the post-war era the growth of the welfare state was seen by most people as a symbol
of social progress. No more. The welfare state is widely criticised for being inflexible,
slowing moving, bureaucratic, de- humanising and disempowering. We will only make social progress
if we overcome division and exclusion by restoring a sense of social cohesion. A modern
mobile society will only cohere if we are prepared to innovate with new ways of delivering welfare.
That is what social entrepreneurs do. That is why they are so important.
As a society we are stuck. We shoulder an extremely ineffective and cumbersome
welfare state, which is not good at generating a sense of social cohesion, promoting self-reliance
or delivering services that match those of the private sector. We know it needs sweeping reform.
Yet we fear losing our own entitlements or being accessories to policies that will punish the poor.
We cannot find a way forward.
We need to commit ourselves to a wave of social innovation, lasting years, to create
new welfare services and new organisations to deliver them. We need both new ideas and
policies, as well as new institutions to deliver them. We need a new generation of welfare
institutions that are voluntaristic, open and flexible yet professional, innovative and business-like. To
create a new social welfare system we need a new breed of social entrepreneur. Britain has a
long history of welfare innovation. At the time of its creation, the welfare state was the culmination
of this great reforming tradition. Yet one of the greatest costs of the welfare state has been
its crowding out of organisations capable of producing welfare reform. We need to return to
this voluntaristic tradition of welfare innovation.
Social innovation holds the key to our social ills. Social entrepreneurs are the people
most able to deliver that innovation.
Social entrepreneurs will come from three main sources. It is from the conjunction
of these three forces that social innovation will emerge.
First, there is a growing body of innovation within the public sector, encouraged
by contracting-out, local management of schools and devolution of power within the
health services. This is encouraging public sector managers and workers to find new ways
of delivering welfare services.
Second, the private sector is showing a growing interest in the social setting
for business, particularly the quality of education. This should promote a cross-pollination
of entrepreneurial practices from the private sector into areas of welfare.
Third, the voluntary sector is developing an innovative leading edge which is the
most fertile source of social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs are emerging from often
small organisations deploying business skills in tackling social settings.
Social entrepreneurs create assets for communities that would not otherwise exist.
The most obvious examples of these assets are new buildings, new services or a revived
reputation for an area. But in many ways the most important form of capital that a social
entrepreneur creates is social capital.
Social capital is the network of relationships that underpins economic partnerships
and alliances. These networks depend upon a culture of co-operation, fostered by shared values
and trust. The theory of social capital has been developed most effectively by the American
social theorist Robert Putnam in Making democracy work:
civic traditions in modern Italy and by
Francis Fukuyama in Trust. Both books analyse the role that trust and shared values play
in underpinning long-term relationships and co-operation, which in turn promote shared
efforts at innovation.
Social capital matters in the private sector as much as in the voluntary sector. Studies of
the success of the German and Japanese economies for instance have underlined the importance
of long-term relationships and an ethic of co-operation, which provide the basis for their record
of innovation and manufacturing prowess.
Social entrepreneurs have to be good at communicating the mission. Successful
social entrepreneurs are good storytellers.
This storytelling capacity marks them out from business executives and politicians.
Ask executives to explain their businesses and they will most likely talk analytically about
market share and product segments. Ask politicians what they stand for and they will treat you to
a mixture of abstract values, detailed policies and well-honed sound bites. Ask
social entrepreneurs and they will most likely tell you a story about how a person transformed
their outlook by being involved with the project.
Social entrepreneurs are visionary: they communicate their aims in moral terms. But
they do not get hung up on plans and strategies. They are pragmatic and opportunistic. If an
opportunity comes along they will try to take it, even if it does not fit their original plan. Social
entrepreneurs may be visionary, but they are not sentimental, especially about their users. They are
realistic about the nature of the problems their users confront. They see their users are active
and demanding people rather than dependent, passive recipients of welfare services.
Social entrepreneurs are great alliance builders. Their organisations are usually too poor and
too frail to survive on their own resources. They can only survive by depending upon a wider
network of support. Social entrepreneurs will only succeed if they are good at establishing
these networks of support. Successful social entrepreneurs are all good at networking. They are all
for different reasons socially confident. They will talk to anyone, of any political persuasion,
if they think the conversation might help their project.
They are ideological chameleons: they cannot be tied down to a political position as
this would cut them off from potential supporters. They do not accept a single,
simplistic explanation for the problems they deal with. Social entrepreneurs, driven by the need
to address real problems, have already gone beyond the traditional divisions of left and
right, market and state.
Their language is caring, compassionate and moral. Yet that does not mean they
identify with the liberal left: they are highly critical of the statism of the old left and
sentimentalised versions of working class communities. They recognise that economic dislocation and
global competition have contributed to many of the social problems they are dealing with. But
that does not make them anti-business. Instead, they recognise the importance of benchmarking
the standards of their own services against those of the private sector.
They would completely reject the libertarian right's radical individualism. Yet they
accept much of the right's critique of the way the welfare state has created a dependency
culture among many benefit recipients. This ideological flexibility and intellectual agility
underpins their ability to innovate.
It is illuminating to compare the activities of social entrepreneurs with those of
the welfare state and the private sector. The welfare state is blessed with a lot of physical
and financial capital. Yet it destroys social and human capital as often as it creates it. It is
too bureaucratic to generate the relationships of trust and goodwill, which can start to revive a
sense of community and solidarity.
The private sector relies on social capital, but it all too rarely creates it. Private sector
companies depend upon a relationship of trust with their employees, consumers and the communities
where they operate. Yet all too often restructuring, delayering and downsizing have destroyed
these bonds of social capital.
Socially entrepreneurial organisations are like social test beds. They offer rare
opportunities to conduct practical research and develop social policies. We need to find ways of leveraging
the lessons learned in these organisations by transferring their best practice to the public sector.
Social entrepreneurs criticise the public sector for an alarming mixture of
cumbersome bureaucracy and capricious changeability. Yet a public sector that was too homogeneous,
armed with a single, directional policy for the social sector would be almost as bad. It would be a
mistake for the state to adopt a blanket policy for the voluntary sector. A policy aimed at
promoting social innovation and entrepreneurship needs to be discriminating, without falling into the trap
of `picking winners'.
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