What does success look like for social entrepreneurs?
How do you know you’ve made it as a social entrepreneur? When you’ve helped your one hundredth beneficiary? When you’ve set up three centres? Well, it’s certainly not when you’ve made your first cool million, says Katharine Danton.
There’s no winner’s podium for social entrepreneurs – understanding success and performance in the sector is a complex art. At UnLtd, we are always being asked how many of our award winners become successful social entrepreneurs. It’s a good question, and one I asked when I was fresh into the job. But, the bottom line isn’t a nice simple £ sign. I’d argue there’s not really a triple bottom line either – it’s still too simplistic. Understanding how any social venture, and social entrepreneur for that matter, is performing is a complex art.
But I like a challenge, and that’s why I set out with the team to explore what success looks like and how support organisations like UnLtd can help social entrepreneurs to achieve it. Now before you get excited, no we haven’t found the golden answer. It isn’t 42. What we have found is that the common indicators used for success, like turnover and survival rates, are useful, but can be misleading about the true nature of success. Just because an organisation has a huge income, doesn’t mean it has created more impact than one which doesn’t need money to sustain it. Take one of my personal favourites, Star Wards, for example. Star Wards enables in-patient mental health wards to create small free or low cost innovations to improve conditions for its patients. One ward introduced a pet rabbit which reduced self harming on a women’s secure unit by 50%. If you multiply that type of effect by 300 (which is 70% of mental health wards in UK) and then take that to the power of the idea coming from the very people who live or work on the wards themselves, well you get an impressive, indeed invaluable, amount of impact. Invaluable being the key word. Because yes, what social entrepreneurs do cannot and, I argue should not, be weighed, verified and valued (but that’s a whole other post).
From high impact to deep impact, in our second findings paper, Social Entrepreneurs: Realising Success we enjoy exploring the twists and turns of what we discovered when looking at success. We move between high turnover ventures, to high impact, to successful service co-option in public provision. But perhaps that is not as enlightening as when exploring projects which ended in what some might call project failure. At the beginning of the year we did a survey of previous UnLtd award winners. Some 72 of the 417 respondents to our survey told us their venture was no longer running. We asked these people to tell us what happened. Analysing their answers, we found some surprising results. Almost as many as those closed down for the very best of reasons, because their aim had been achieved (14/72), as for the very worst of reasons, their funding ran out (17/72). Other reasons were put forward too, such as the service being subsumed into another, or the individual themselves moving on for personal reasons such as to start a family. It seems then that a project ending is not an absolute indicator for failure after all. As a support organisation to social entrepreneurs, it is our responsibility to help social entrepreneurs achieve success and help them develop as they go. So let’s value the wide and varied range of people who are doing the little and the big things to make society better, and not get so hung up on a single definition of success.
Katharine Danton is director of research and policy at UnLtd – a charity that supports social entrepreneurs