Saturday, February 9, 2008

Social Entrepreneurship - Is this for you?

Are you thinking of setting up a social enterprise?

If so my first question would be: `Is this for you?’ Or do you just like the idea?

It is important to be brutally honest because success in social enterprise doesn’t come easily. It means not only giving up a job, assuming you have one, but also a lifestyle – that of the employee and regular person.

The sacrifices and risks, particularly to your reputation, are high. You will live with uncertainty and total responsibility for the success of your venture.

So look hard into the mirror and ask yourself if this is what you want. What you really want!

This isn’t just an opinion. A recent study for the School for Social Entrepreneurs (reviewed elsewhere in this edition) shows that social entrepreneurs are a rare breed.

What makes them special isn’t just their ability to dream up new responses to old problems but, far more importantly, their ability to shape up a practical response.

Where most people never get beyond their lattes and laptops, social entrepreneurs are people who decide to take action.

Massive action.

This powerful trigger-to-action for social entrepreneurs is referred to in the study as an `Excalibur moment’.

My own such moment came when as a 24 year-old I reacted to the lives (or rather lack of a life!) experienced by many learning-disabled people with whom I was working. I realised that if I didn’t do something, no-one else would. So I founded Speaking Up.

What happened during the following three years was probably the hardest period of my life so far. Hardest because I had to learn everything as I went along. Hardest because I made some horrendous mistakes.

Hardest because I worked like a horse for three years and survived on Pot Noodles and Red Bull!

But it was also the best period too. Best because the fairground-ride of building something from scratch. Best because of the sense of freedom and creativity. Best because I knew Speaking Up wouldn’t be happening if we weren’t doing it.

Notice here that the `Bests’ outnumber the `Hardests’ . But each `Best’ and `Hardest’ was an extreme.

Life as a social entrepreneur feels much more animated than when you’re just doing a job. The best bits will probably surpass anything you’ll ever experience at work.

Equally, the worst parts are truly dreadful. I remember, many times, opening envelopes thinking ‘If this isn’t good news, we are finished’.

Jobs lost, years of my life down the drain. People saying ‘Told you so!’.

So, passion and commitment are vital. But the second big message of the SSE study is that that these alone are not enough to succeed in social enterprise. Its also about having the right skills.

We all know people who have passion in bucket-loads only to crash and burn because they don’t have what it takes.

So what does it take? Three of the core attributes of successful social entrepreneurs identified by the research are fantastic networking skills, an exceptional aptitude for learning and a realistic assessment of their own abilities.

My own view is that the research is spot-on.

You’ve got to be able to build coalitions of support around you. These networks sustain you and amplify your influence.

You have to be hungry to learn whatever you can from every person you meet.

And, perhaps most vital of all, you’ve got to be humble enough know what you are hopeless at doing yourself. Only then you can build a balanced team around yourself and develop something sustainable.

Still feeling up for it? If so, it is important that you act.

Now, more than ever, the support is there for you to do it.

Just contact the School for Social Entrepreneurs or Unltd, both fantastic organisations for people starting out.

Then prepare for the time of your life.

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