The Flawed Cult of the Social Entrepreneur

An article on Bloomberg Business Week reads, ‘Sorry, Kids, Changing the World Takes More Than a Killer App’. Using the example of the Hult Prize Challenge, which awards $1 million to a team of young social entrepreneurs to improve lives in developing countries, the former World Bank economist Charles Kenny highlights the biggest challenge of social entrepreneurship: being small.

In his view, the crux of the social enterprise movement is cynicism about the public sector. However, such cynicism is not helpful because ‘the problem in developing countries isn’t too much government—it is too little of the wrong sort’. He argues for more attention on fixing failing and failed government institutions. His persuasive critique of the social enterprise movement is a wake-up call to many in the sector. One entrepreneur who works in West Africa comments on his article that we should have ‘more focus on infrastructural / system fixers’.

Here at TSIC, we believe that there are different ways to make an impact: 1) direct intervention, 2) systems strengthening and 3) informing/inspiring others to deliver. Most social entrepreneurs focus on building organisations that deliver direct interventions to treat problems. This is the flawed cult of the social entrepreneur that Charles Kenny has pointed out.

Earlier this year, TSIC delivered a session at Oxford Jam titled ‘The Flawed Cult of the Social Entrepreneur: Is Your Social Enterprise Stopping You Having the Impact You Could?’. We wanted to challenge social entrepreneurs to do more good for less by aiming to inform others, strengthen systems and/or collaborate instead of insisting on protecting and scaling a direct intervention.

The 50 session participants came from a range of backgrounds and were split into groups to discuss the expected impact under three scenarios: 1) direct intervention, 2) systems strengthening and 3) informing/inspiring others to deliver. Some groups found that solutions that opt for direct intervention do not necessarily yield a larger impact. Achieving impact depends on the core capabilities of your organisation and other players in the sector. One insight from the session is that to maximise social impact, the pervasive mind-set of competitiveness needs to be replaced by one of collaboration.

We’d love to hear your thoughts: are some organisations are better-off aiming for systems strengthening and/or informing/inspiring others to deliver? Tweet to us @TSICLondon.

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