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It takes a village

Imagine you are a famous author, and you’ve just written your greatest masterpiece. Your publisher is happy to give you a big advance – an investment if you like – and to promote your book widely. 

Let’s take a step back. The book is just as good, but you are a new author. The odds have slipped dramatically against you. Even more if you have no contacts with publishers to encourage them to at least take a look.

Now a big step back. You have no access to writing materials. There are no publishers and no bookshops, no Amazon or e-readers. What’s worse still, most of the population cannot read, and there is no culture of reading novels. To cap it all, government hasn’t gotten around to a copyright law, and is thinking of banning books in case they are subversive to the regime.

Are you still investable?

I’m not saying that all social enterprise markets are this bad. Some are. Many have elements of this kind of ecosystem problem. We work disproportionately in broken markets, and in markets for the poor which have thin margins and many challenges.

Recall the influential Monitor report, From Blueprint to Scale, and how it identified that it took $20 billion in philanthropy to establish microfinance, and that pioneering bank Grameen took 17 years before getting into surplus.

Yet too often, we still hear the paradigm that runs neatly from social entrepreneur through social enterprise to social investment and social problem solved. There are just enough outlier success stories to keep this mind-set alive – beyond which, it is dangerously misleading.

In the UK, we are lucky enough to have a pretty rounded social ecosystem. We have capacity building support and finance at start up and scale up stages. We have intermediaries who understand what we are doing, from lawyers and accountants to investors and public services. We have legal systems which permit and protect social enterprises and investors. We have a culture of doing social good and of concern to address social disadvantage. Perhaps we are weak on venture philanthropy and access to markets, but overall we have some of everything. And even then, it’s still a struggle for social enterprises, and much more of a struggle to actually resolve the social problems we are trying to sort out.

I’m just back from working with 14 country government delegations in Asia, all collaborating with the UK, USA and Germany in a policy dialogue to improve their work to develop a social economy. Really great by the way, to see the British Council, Asia Venture Philanthropy Network, and Global Social Enterprise Forum working together. There are many blazing innovations across these countries which we could learn from in the UK, and an incredible pace of development: holding company models, groups of city mayors committing to buy social, using the public-private project methodology common in infrastructure to back major social infrastructure, and many more great ideas. Yet too often, these innovations stand alone in an absent ecosystem. It became very clear that having some of everything is way more helpful than having even the world’s best of one thing.

There’s the African saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” – a saying which Hilary Clinton took up as the title of her 1996 book. I reckon it takes a special kind of village – an ecosystem – to resolve a social problem.

Social entrepreneurship, social enterprise, social investment – these are contributions to a much wider system, with many other contributors. None of us have the solution, but all of us together might just do it, and never think for a moment that money on its own can be enough. 

Last updated | 
1 June 2016

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