Here’s an issue which has cropped up time and again in conversations about social innovation: Those who give small and medium sized grants to social enterprises trying to move beyond the start-up phase face a conundrum. On the one hand, they want to fund the best ideas with the best chance of achieving impact. On the other hand, social start-ups often don’t have the capacity and skills to make the strongest, most evidence based, case for their work. In particular, it is unusual to find applicants who have thoroughly answered these simple but tough questions: ‘what other initiatives are very similar to yours?’, and ‘why is yours positively different?’
I suspect there is a psychological dimension. A few years ago someone ‘phoned to ask me if the RSA would support a new project in schools to promote entrepreneurship. When I gently pointed out that there are already several national and local initiatives of this sort which he should check out before refining his own thoughts, not only didn’t he thank me for the advice but he clearly felt slighted.
When we have an idea or a passion we tend to want to think it is unique to us, that we are truly radical innovators who are bound to succeed simply because of the strength of our intuition and commitment. No one likes to have that enthusiasm dampened by the knowledge many other people have walked this road before and many have lost their way. And - in case you’re wondering - I am just as guilty. When I had my idea yesterday of a national care experience for young people my first reaction was to hope no one else had thought of it or done before.
It should also be said there is a converse problem of people taking an idea to an existing organisation and being met with a ‘not invented here’ or ‘we tried that twenty years ago and it failed' defensiveness.
An example of an area in which I hear of new initiatives almost daily and in which it is vital to survey a crowded scene of similar ideas is mentoring. Last week the Sutton Trust becomes the latest organisation to present conclusions from meta–analysis of educational practice (that is analysis of many research projects around the same topics). One conclusion was that ‘poor mentoring is worse than no mentoring at all’. This reflects not just of the quality of individual schemes and mentors but also the conceptual foundations of mentoring. Often the motivation for establishing schemes is the assumption that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer from low aspirations and therefore need the guidance and encouragement of a high achiever.
However, as powerful research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown, the story of low aspiration – despite being ubiquitous in political speeches and newspaper columns – is a myth. The problem for the disadvantaged, whether pupils, parents or the wider community, is not low aspirations but low expectations and limited resources to change those expectations. Young people don’t need to be insured they need concrete advice and support to enable them to climb the stubbornly wide gaps between the rungs of the progression ladder.
From all this I conclude that what we need is a social enterprise concept triage process. Through this people with new ideas or fledgling schemes, but lacking the time, skills, resources, or psychological resilience properly to survey the scene of similar initiatives and their evaluation, could get a short, focussed but robust research report that can inform, guide maybe even sometimes inspire. Funders might quickly ask for such reports to be appended to funding applications.
The consequence? Some dreams would be shattered, some hopes extinguished but also a whole heap of blood, sweat and tears would be avoided and funders would be able to choose from a smaller but better field of applications. The process might itself be a social enterprise, charging just enough to provide the service and using social science students who would have the skills and could use the money for a job they could do flexibly.
I just hope I’m the first to come up with this great idea. But if you have already heard about someone doing something similar, to be honest, I really don’t want to know.