More clean teeth, not more toothbrushes

We don’t need another hero

Do social entrepreneurs think they’re better than ‘normal’ businesspeople?

Speaking at last month’s Big Social, a London gathering of those working in or supporting social businesses, Dr Margaret Mountford suggested at least some of them do. Watch out for a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, warned the former sidekick from The Apprentice.

At the same conference, a session on branding for social enterprises touched on personal brand. How you come across to others can be particularly important, the facilitators said, because social enterprises are often associated with the small teams that run them, and are often founded by individuals whose personal story is wrapped up in how the business came about.

In an age that encourages (or even demands) all of us to develop a personal brand, the social entrepreneur is surely no more to blame than the rest of us for feeling that their profile, their story, really matters. Meanwhile, those of us writing about social enterprise (including me) find an easy way in to complex problems and business models by talking, instead, about the personal journey behind it all. How they struggled, how they failed, what they learned, how they triumphed.

But has it got just a bit too personal?

Daniela Papi-Thornton, Deputy Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, thinks so.

‘Heropreneurship’ — ‘reverence for the heroic social entrepreneur’ is not only leading more and more people “to pursue a career path that promises opportunities to save the world, gain social status, and earn money, all at the same time”, she writes in this SSIR article, it’s also limiting the change we’re trying to accomplish.

“With so much focus on social entrepreneurship as the path to social change”, she says, “our accolades and training offerings are making it seem like there is a hierarchy of social action with entrepreneurship at the top, and that is certainly not the case.”

That skewed focus means that too many well-intentioned people are concentrating on ‘being a founder’ rather than on truly understanding a problem. That’s not the fault of the individual idealist, she says, rather, of an industry that encourages them. But we don’t need more people wanting to ‘be’ a social entrepreneur, we need solutions; as Papi-Thornton puts it: “social entrepreneurs are like toothbrushes — but we don’t want more toothbrushes, we want more clean teeth.” (On Purpose is one example of a programme that focuses on skills for building or running, rather than starting, social enterprises; read more here.)

Funding, says Papi-Thornton, often goes to people who haven’t lived the problem they’re out to solve — and rarely gives them the tools to fully understand the problem first. She proposes better ways to deal with that, for example, funding for ‘apprenticing with a problem’, or selecting only ideas that are proven to be grounded in research:

“What if every social impact funder asked start-up applicants this: “What five organisations working in the same sector, within the same geography, or with the same demographic have you spoken with, and how have you built on the lessons you learned from their successes and failures?” If we encourage and celebrate “building on,” we will hopefully end up with fewer innovations designed in a vacuum, and applicants will feel less pressure to prove they are unique and more pressure to prove they’ve learned about the problem and current solutions landscape before building their business solution.” (Read the full article here)

Her point echoes another powerful article by American writer Courtney Martin, The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems. Issues you have little direct experience of (for example, on the other side of the world), says Martin, will inevitably seem less complex and easier to solve than those close to home, causing millions of idealists to set off somewhere to help while neglecting what’s happening closer to home — issues they’d arguably be better-placed to solve. (Ouch. I am also guilty of this.)

What about failure? We now expect any entrepreneur worth his/her salt to have tried and failed a few times along the way. But at whose expense? And, I wonder: is the current vogue for talking positively about failure shifting the focus too much, again, to the individual — rather than to their problem? Failing with one approach, then using what you’ve learned to tackle the same problem in a different way is a way of using the experience positively. But Papi-Thornton says heropreneurs tend to be “married to their idea – to their sexy solution that they pitched in a business plan competition – rather than to the problem itself”. And when their idea doesn’t work, they move on to something else: “anything that will keep them in the “founder” role, rather than really examining what it would take to solve the problem at hand.”

Fail fast, move on: that’s what entrepreneurs do, though, right? Should we grant social entrepreneurs the luxury to do that as well — or do we need them to be different?

3 thoughts on “More clean teeth, not more toothbrushes

    1. Thanks for sharing, Doug… I guess ‘falling in love with the problem not the solution’ is one thing that sets a social entrepreneur apart from a more purely commercial entrepreneur. Which is setting high expectations of them — but maybe that’s fair enough, if those expectations are better communicated to potential founder, early on?

      1. Purely commercial entrepreneurs are rare: I think most are interested in solving genuine problems so social entrepreneurs should avoid being too smug.

        All enterpreneurs should be looking at alternative solutions. One reason I like Lean Startup is that it forces you to accept that your first attempt at a solution is not necessarily optimal.

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