Advice to Social Entrepreneurs from a Social Entrepreneur

Social entrepreneurs, the people who create businesses aimed at improving the lives of the poor, gathered last weekend for the Skoll World Forum. Even when there are not events just for social entrepreneurs, it is hard to go to a development conference or talk without running into a few self-starters. Some cynics have grumbled on while thought leaders tout the virtues and impact of social entrepreneurs.

Annie Lennox sings about changing the world at the Skoll World Forum
Annie Lennox sings about changing the world at the Skoll World Forum
Global X

Now one of their own is throwing some cold water on the ever growing fire. Liam Black, a social entrepreneur before the title was cool, penned an open letter ahead of the Skoll World Forum to his fellow social entrepreneurs. In it, he knocks down the propensity to make heroes out of the sector.

[B]eware of setting anyone up as a hero. Putting someone on a pedestal is one of the worst things you can do to them. Heroes are like the human body – the closer you get to them the more flawed, messy and complicated they are.

Each year the socially entrepreneurial Cirque de Soleil sets up its big tent at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Champagne is sipped whilst corporate CEOs, Russian oligarchs and Arab potentates ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the miracles being performed by the social entrepreneurs. The Occupy movement activisits on the other hand are kept a long distance away and canapés are not put out for them. Their diet is tear gas and police truncheon.

Power, class – especially class – and entitlement are three subjects nowhere near high enough up the agenda of Skoll and Davos. It is very fashionable at such gatherings to hear mainstream politics trashed as unable to compete with the whizzy, sexy, genius social entrepreneurs. Yawn, party politics. How boring. How last century.

Black goes on to question the impact of social enterprises asking the reader to name one enterprise that has a greater impact than a government policy such as a smoking ban. Later on, he alludes to the very problems that surround development discussions; social entrepreneurs are applying solutions to the problems of countries in Africa as if they know best. He concludes with advice he wants all to heed:

As Helder Camara once said: “The poor are not the raw material for your salvation.”  This should be inscribed over the doorway to the Skoll Centre and at receptions in all social businesses.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.