June 9, 2009

Social impact or social capital – what’s it to be?

Filed under: projects — benmetz @ 11:20 pm

I had a good chat with UnLtd CEO Cliff Prior over dinner last night at Pham Sushi on whitecross street.  Time didn’t allow for the us to do justice to the broad range of subject matter we got stuck in to but one strand worth dwelling on, just for a few lines, is to ask what’s more important – fostering social capital or pushing for social impact at scale?

In many ways Ashoka is all about creating social impact at scale while UnLtd’s mandate is much more about supporting the development of social capital at the local, grassroots, level.  Do we disregard the nurturing of a thousand flowers, however disorganised and unstrategic, in favour of focusing resources on a few big hitting wins that shows the world what impact social entrepreneurship can provide?  Or do we opt for a focus that, through a myriad different manifestations, strengthens the fabric of society and people’s ability to respond to and care for each other and the communities around them?

Well obviously the answer is both…  But in a sector that is under-resourced, early stage (naive?) and expanding fast we have to be thoughtful about where our focus should be placed.

The expectation of government and the media is for social enterprise and social entrepreneurship to deliver at scale while the infrastructure the sector has developed is more geared to flag waving and cheering any and every attempt, however feeble, in getting initiatives started.  Clearly there is a mismatch between expectations and resources and abilities in this nascent sector.

Personally I believe we can have both – and to do so we need to focus on creating large scale social enterprises whose social impact is to foster social capital (not just delivering vanilla public sector contracts – a complete distraction in my opinion and a surefire way for government to keep occupied the revolutionary talent in these organisations capable of delivering real change!).  UnLtd needs to focus its efforts on the exactly this while Ashoka needs to get off its high horse and really examine which of the initiatives it supports foster meaningful development of social capital, at scale.

And both organisations need to be a hell of a lot more ruthless in who they support.  And a hell of a lot more challenging to those they do support…  Less flag waving please – we don’t deserve it yet!


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