Activism with Professional Skills
from The Jobs Letter No.147 / 27 June 2001
Practical People Noble Causes
how to support community-based social entrepreneurs
by Stephen Thake and Simon Zadek
(58pg, published by New Economics Foundation 1997/2000)
available from New Economics website at www.neweconomics.org
- Creative and energetic leaders play an essential role in making societies work.
When they are active in politics we call them national leaders; when they turn their attentions
to commerce we call them entrepreneurs. By naming them, we recognise them, give them
status, help them exploit their full potential. In one part of our society, however, we too often fail
to name these leaders, to recognise their qualities and the contributions they can make. We
rarely provide adequate support for their efforts: indeed, often our institutions work against them.
And yet our lives are influenced by these people, and our future may actually depend on them.
They are the "community-based social entrepreneurs".
- Social entrepreneurs are critical to developing sustainable solutions to the challenges
of the 21st century.
The weight of social responsibility is being returned to the community. In order to carry
this weight, the social fabric that has been eroded over decades needs to be revitalised and
repaired. This will not be achieved through public-sector-led programmes alone. Similarly it will
not happen through committees and public meetings alone. Leadership is required, and always
has been. Today, a particular brand of leader is needed who goes beyond partial, remedial
actions. They will be critical in the development of solutions that enhance the quality of life and
are sustainable in human, organisational, financial and environmental terms.
The community leaders who will be counted tomorrow are those who have the
strength and integrity to gain the trust of communities that have been repeatedly let down over
the years, who are able to develop new solutions and who are able to make these solutions work
- Entrepreneurs need support to turn their ideas into reality. The view that
"real" entrepreneurs do not need support, since they always win through in the end, is
utterly miscast. The history of entrepreneurs is about battling against the odds. But it is also about
the help they receive. Sometimes this comes from family or friends. Often, in the case
of commercial entrepreneurs, it comes from the many public and private institutions that exist
to identify and encourage sound effort and success.
We are neither good at recognising social entrepreneurs, nor good at assisting them
with the support and infrastructure they need to develop the solutions and concepts required for
the 21st century. In the social sphere, attempts to innovate are often met with closed
doors, unhelpful bureaucracies, insensitive sources of funds and sometimes downright
destructive aggression. This is particularly the case when innovators are trying to improve things
within their own communities. Indeed, social entrepreneurs are most effectively marginalised by
the dominant institutions in our society when they come from those communities most in need.
- Entrepreneurs in whatever part of society they are found, and with whatever
they turn their hands to are change agents. In stable times, most authority is accredited to
those who give orders. When, however, orders produce dysfunctional outputs or there appear to
be no linkages between the bridge and the rudder, there is organisational breakdown. It is at
such times that "the timid can become brave". Entrepreneurs are analytical in that they can
identify deficiencies in systems. They are eclectic and borrow concepts from other disciplines to
devise solutions. They are no respecters of the status quo. They are often seen as irritants and
trouble- makers, for they are typically magpies, drawing ideas and practices from one part of
society into another, remoulding society in new and imaginative ways in the process. At times
of change they are seen as catalysts with an independent existence. The historian Theodore
Zeldin calls these catalytic people intermediaries, who are able to create "...new situations
and transform people's lives by bringing them together without having arrogant
- Social entrepreneurs are driven by a desire for social justice. Social entrepreneurs
do not create personal wealth for themselves, they create common wealth for the
wider community. They build social capital in order to promote social cohesion. They seek a
direct link between their actions and an improvement in the quality of life for the people with
whom they work and those that they seek to serve. They aim to produce solutions which
are sustainable financially, organisationally, socially and environmentally.
- Social entrepreneurs can exist in any sector of society. They often have a greater
affinity with other social entrepreneurs in very different areas of activity than they have with
people working in their own sector. Hence social entrepreneurs from different sectors are able
to initiate and maintain constructive dialogue, while other cross-sectoral meetings are held
back by the barriers of caution and suspicion. This empathy and understanding based on a sense
of common experience does begin to indicate that there are indeed some common traits
amongst social entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds and involved in very different work.
- The traditional voluntary sector is largely averse to risk and entrepreneurial
activity. Voluntary and charitable sectors have been orientated towards service provision even more
so than the public sector. The concept of doing good is even more pervasive. Moreover they
are frequently service providers of last resort and hence from this monopolistic position they
are not obligated to offer choice and can impose their own value systems. Traditionally, the
major charities have often existed within a world of their own. They raised money through
public donations and private endowment, which was then distributed either through their
own agencies or independent bodies to provide services to meet the needs of their particular
- Radical new thinking is what makes entrepreneurs different from simply
"good people". Social entrepreneurs are not content with a single initiative, they develop networks
of initiatives that feed and learn from each other. Their vision is not merely to demonstrate
the fact that something can work, but to show that their success is not just a one-off piece of luck
or coincidence. Their vision is to set new agendas that others will follow, rather than only work
to achieve success for a particular community. This "agenda-setting" characteristic of
community-based social entrepreneurs provides the radical new thinking and practice required to deal
with today's social and environmental dilemmas.
- Just as architects and building surveyors look at the physical capital of society and
see where it is damaged and in need of repair, so community-based social entrepreneurs look at
a community's social capital. They are able to see a tear here, a hole there and places where
the fabric of society has become threadbare. Just like their physical counterparts,
community-based social entrepreneurs are able to devise remedies, fill voids, refurbish and renew. But
social capital is not merely there to be understood, or even to be repaired or rebuilt.
Encouraging people to work together using and building social capital is to achieve common
goals. Whether it be to open a hospice, encourage small businesses, build a home or
reawaken people's confidence, community-based social entrepreneurs are expert at making
- Some, often older, community-based social entrepreneurs gained their experience
within traditional work areas. Dissatisfied with what they were required to do, or seeing that
existing approaches were not meeting needs, they changed direction, and chose a rockier path.
These older people have many of the classic skills needed to be successful in their chosen
enterprise. Often they also bring with them the networks of contacts in public institutions and
foundations that make the difference between supported effectiveness and obscurity.
Younger community-based social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, often do not have
the professional background of these older leaders. Possibly with an anger born of the
experience of constant rejection, they certainly do have the energy, and often the credibility,
legitimacy and networks, at community level. What they lack, however, are many of the things that
others take for granted an understanding of finances and the pitfalls of grant dependency, or
how to build organisations that move beyond informal networks.
Too many budding community leaders are knocked back by their lack of experience
in dealing with the weight of institutional resistance they face. Too many brilliant ideas
never reach trial stage because of the inability of inexperienced innovators to develop them to
an operational level, and to articulate their strengths to reluctant sources of support. And,
finally, too often leaders flounder at an early stage of implementation because of their
weak understanding of how to make organisations work.
- Public policy needs to move from important but essentially passive recognition
to active support for community-based social entrepreneurs. This will require first and
foremost that policy makers understand the central characteristics of community-based
social entrepreneurs and the contribution they make. From this comes an understanding
that traditional forms of public provision will generally not offer the kind of support required.
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