Why Social Entrepreneurs Shouldn’t Be Needed

We’ve co-founded initiatives for years, but still the not-for-profit sector remains one full of contradictions – contradictions of democracy, hierarchy, fair pay, fair play, and even the concept of social good itself.

What is a social enterprise? We know it’s neither part of the private sector nor the public sector, but is it a charity? A charitable organisation? Is it a non-profit company? Perhaps a co-operative? Is it an unincorporated association with a committee of concerned citizens leading a local group? Or is it simply John Lewis and Waitrose? Well, it’s all of these.

The fact is, a considerable part of Jane’s paper for her Masters in Politics with Research Methods examined social enterprises and found that there is actually no one single definitive definition; Jay’s attendance at the School for Social Entrepreneurs around the same time, with its numerous guest speakers, experts, and facilitators suggested the same: a social enterprise takes many forms in this “third” sector.

Nonetheless, whether researching and interviewing successful social entrepreneurs, or learning how to become a better one by going “back to school,” the role of the “community champion” and “social entrepreneur” has often been celebrated and held in high regard by everyone from all backgrounds and across the political spectrum. After all, after the Masters degree and the time spent at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, together we forged ahead with our combined ideas about how to make a difference through various not-for-profit community initiatives just as then-Prime Minister David Cameron heralded the emergence of “The Big Society” in what at first appeared to be a departure from Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society, only individuals,” but then emerged to be a clever and cynical marketing ploy to, for example, pull funding from libraries (except his own local library, of course) and call on people in the cut-to-the-bone communities to volunteer to help keep their libraries open. It’s been practically normalised by now; accepted as a given that libraries are apparently a luxury, rather than a right, in a capitalist system.

As it turned out, Cameron wasn’t contradicting Thatcher at all – he was suggesting that funding libraries wasn’t society’s collective responsibility, but instead down to individuals to find time to invest in keeping their local library open. With his “Big Society,” Cameron was merely adhering to the Tory neoliberal approach of slashing public services with its large unionised workforce, and focusing on the private sector that his party receives its bulk of funds from (particularly The City). Despite the fact that it was private debt and not public debt that caused the financial crisis, Cameron pushed the lie that the treasury was in trouble because of bloated government spending rather than a bailout of the banks Thatcher herself deregulated in the first place (even though his party claimed they agreed with New Labour’s spending levels mere months before the financial crisis began, presenting an opportunity for the Tories to change tack and embark on a slash-and-burn “austerity” agenda allegedly needed to “balance the books” of a treasury Thatcher absurdly compared to the budget of a “housewife”).

Suffice to say, the myth of “trickle-down” neoliberal economics was shattered once and for all when banks were deemed “too big to fail” and were bailed out – opening up an opportunity for alternative economic perspectives we’re enjoying on a much more widespread level today.

The “Big Society” became about trying to continue to rig society, and not just in shutting down services in poorer communities: hopes of investment in social enterprise were suddenly replaced by the realisation that significant grant funding (from funding bodies partnering with, of all things, banks) was only available for initiatives already enjoying an annual turnover of around £200,000. As a result, with little start-up funding available, there seemed to be an emergence of commercially viable companies – led by middle and upper class business people with enough clout or contacts to get their business up and running – with enough about them to meet some sort of “social enterprise” criteria, and then access further support from, say, the Lloyds Foundation. It was perfect Tory ideology: the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

Meanwhile, many of those at the forefront of social enterprise were commercially successful business people from well-off backgrounds and therefore content with the status quo. (Yes, this is why we’ve been called “disruptive social entrepreneurs!”) The rest of us have scrambled around for funding ever since; we’ve never reached an annual turnover of £200,000 (in fact, barely £20,000) in any of our initiatives and each passing year has forced us to find and turn to traditional streams of income generation in order to survive and hopefully do social good in whatever way we can (in other words, more commercial methods – when there’s much less money to be made in genuinely helping people). We’re not content with that. We’re not ready to accept it and capitulate to this narrative. And we have ideas of how to counter it.

None of this is to say there aren’t still incredibly inspiring people defying the odds of their backgrounds and the political climate, and spearheading not-for-profit initiatives that are absolutely killing it when it comes to social, environmental and economic aims – and thriving. But even they are restricted. As we’ve mentioned on this blog before, the individual “community champion,” as a social entrepreneur, is one of the many contradictions of the sector: if we are to depend on these individuals – if they are so important to social impact in areas of need – then why are we removing them from the “boardrooms” of social enterprises? So much grant funding is based on the condition that the social entrepreneur, if they are to claim an income for their own work, are not allowed any say in formal governance of the organisation; conversely, if they do sit on their board, they cannot even be paid for the work they’ve done.

While this renders the very role of the “social entrepreneur” essentially emasculated, and a complete contradiction, it is typical of the double-standards applied to the sector: entrepreneurs, business leaders, and CEOs of major companies often retain immense influence over the direction of their companies, and if a managing director of a successful business is said to be “worth” an annual salary of say £75,000 a year in the private sector, once they switch into the public sector or even the third sector, the corporate press convey outrage at such a salary, even though they’re doing the exact same job (and, yes, probably for a much more honourable cause than just making profit). If we were genuinely appalled at the idea of someone being paid too much, we’d be consistent in our outrage, not applying it to suit a corporate agenda when anything not about profit needs downgrading and devaluing. If these arguments were in any way genuine, they’d be calling for bosses to be paid less no matter what sector they were in. And this brings us back to the paid social entrepreneur. Because part of the scaremongering about chief executive pay in charitable organisations was all part of the plan to drive down wages in work without a profit motive: pure capitalist ideology.

What we’ve realised is that the social entrepreneur shouldn’t even exist. We say that even as “social entrepreneurs” ourselves (disruptive or otherwise). The idea that social entrepreneurs will be happy to graft away with the grunt work of leading an initiative then be content to sit on the governing board without pay is so incredibly naive, and outdated – and sounds like something straight out of the Big Society playbook, where well-to-do do-gooders with time on their hands and money in the bank will happily lead an initiative on the board, or even lead an initiative then leverage all of their contacts to form a board while they get paid. In less affluent communities, this won’t be happening so much: the social entrepreneur will forge ahead with an idea, sure, but they’ll struggle to find from their peer group anywhere near as many people with the skills, tools, and time to be a director of their board; conversely, they won’t spend almost every waking hour painstakingly developing an initiative, only to then sit on the board – usually only well-off people can do that.

So we have to get rid of the social entrepreneur. It’s a phony concept adapted from individualism that creates a caricature of a “community champion” into some sort of a saviour, when the only champions should be the community itself – like a football team, rather than a golfer. The concept of the social entrepreneur is a kind of public relations smokescreen for the real issues of disadvantaged – and, importantly, disengaged – communities. When one person is expected to step forward, on their own, and deliver some good for their group or community, it sounds like a lot more than Cameron’s “Big Society”…it sounds like Thatcher’s evil individualism. And that cannot be reconciled with social impact. It’s a contradiction in terms.

Yes, we ran SilenceBreaker Media and the FreeTech Project and co-founded AFC Unity – which started off as an idea on notepaper in a cafe and a faith that there’d be a demand for a counter to the culture of toxic masculinity and “everyone for themselves” mentality in football; at first, it was a struggle to make any progress, but “if you build it, they will come” and as we pushed ahead and endured the headaches and heartaches that came with such a countercultural initiative, the profile was raised and the audience increased, and AFC Unity is now largely a harmonious, socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable and incredibly successful non-profit, non-league football club about to finally become a consumer cooperative where the players pay their subs and in return have a say in how it’s run. We ourselves fought hard to get there, to that point, to hand it over. We shouldn’t have had to.

This relates to our criticism of the “social entrepreneur.” We reject Thatcherism’s rampant individualism, and embrace the team spirit of collectivism. The only reason “community champions” are being picked out, one by one, is because to go further – to really dig deep, into these communities and groups and their related difficulties – would be to openly question the democracy of our society itself. Communities are rarely, if ever, genuinely consulted on anything that affects them. And if they were indeed given a forum, a platform, you’d see an emergence of collectivism usually only reserved for trade unionism – that kind of collective bargaining; everyone communicating and conferring and confabulating and coming to compromises and decisions together. The rich and powerful – the 1% – don’t want that. They’re quite content with token social entrepreneurs breaking through, and have been for quite some time, but recently they’ve been making sure even those are closer to their own class backgrounds through darlings like the Lloyds Foundation.

Image by Emma Charleston: https://www.emmacharleston.co.uk/

Ultimately, it’s the hierarchy upon which capitalism is based. Sure, many trade unions aren’t as democratic as they ought to be, but they were created as a shield against the exploitation and oppression from the owning classes (the capitalist bosses). Cooperatives are a way of dismantling that binary difference between bosses and workers – without hierarchy, the workers are their own bosses; they make their own decisions in the same way all of our communities ought to be doing instead of relying on “social entrepreneurs.” Hierarchical organisations lift bosses further up the pay scale and further away from the communities they claim to be part of, and even represent.

Until radical change happens – until we tackle social inequalities that pump out byproducts of toxicity into everything from football to media to technology, for example, the social entrepreneur will just be a single band-aid on one of many wounds on the body politic.

This is why the anti-capitalism of Labour’s “Corbynistas” has been so absolutely crucial in these recent years; for example, last year’s popular Labour manifesto promised a promotion of the cooperative model and investment for communities that would begin to change the way our society works. It’s no secret and no surprise that we ourselves ended up being offered foodbank vouchers a few months ago in no small part to our stubborn commitment to work with social impact, but with an economy radically transformed, people like us would have more money and as a result more time to invest into these initiatives; our communities themselves would be revolutionised to the point where they’d feel like a collective, not just a grouping of individuals: society alive and well. Thatcherism would finally be well and truly dead. And, perhaps with it, the need for the social entrepreneur.

Until then, we’ll aim to keep doing the best we can, and we hope you too will #BeTheChange.

Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: