View on Innovation Exchange from a Social Entrepreneur

Hi all...many thanks to David Wilcox for inviting me onto this forum. I have spend the last few hours looking through what has been posted on this site and I have to say that I am very excited about seeing collaboration in action.

I have decided to focus my post from the user perspective. I have read a lot about content and delivery - seeing many impressive models on the way - however, for me the key is whether what is proposed will help me to build my social enterprise, Work Empowerment Foundation, with more impact, speed and effectiveness.

I will cover four areas in this post - these signify the key areas for concern for me:

  • Who is the core target market?
  • What are the motivations of Social Entrepreneurs?
  • What are problems that Social Entrepreneurs are facing?
  • Possible solutions that can be offered by the innovations exchange

Who is the core target market?

Has anyone been to IKEA? This store is designed for young people who are starting their homes on a budget - who want stylist & simple furniture - don't mind if it falls apart after being moved once - and are prepared to lug it in the store and to home. Anyone else is free to use the store (as one experiences when they visit IKEA) but it is solidly designed for the core target market with no excuses (even when older folks have complained about having to move about furniture...they are encouraged by IKEA to bring younger folks with them to help). The key to IKEA's success is that they keep to serving this core market - trying to serve everyone (especially the disillusioned and needy) can only lead to a mediocre product that no one in particular will use.

In the same strength, we need to decide who the core market for the Innovation exchange is - and then design the exchange to primarily meet their needs. I would propose the core market is Social Entrepreneurs - these folks are the most thirsty for innovation support to make their ideas happen quicker, more effectively and with more leverage. Social Entrepreneurs do not have a shortage of ideas, they need support in making it happen. They will be the early adopters and the rest of the less enterprising folks in other NGOs will follow once they see the benefits that are available to them.

The start of the proposal should a robust needs analysis of exisiting Social Entrepreneurs and would-be-Social Entrepreneurs about what support they need to get their ideas to the market as quickly as possible (which is the aim of the innovation exchange). 

What are the motivations of Social Entrepreneurs?

We need to remember that organisations in the third sector are unique - they all orginally had a Social Entrepreneur behind them - and they have been founded because of a gap in the market that the public sector was not providing for and that the private sector did not see as worthwhile profit wise to serve. Social Entrepreneurs are not motivated by profit - they are motovated by the amount of change that they can make in their chosen area. Also, these organisations have a unique focus - they are not "me-toos" - they have been founded because no-one else is doing it in that particular way that they are proposing and there is a need for this way of delivering it this way with the customers that they are serving. Where this uniqueness has been lost, one can bet that that the organisation is no longer being led by a Social Entrepreneur. The Innovation Exchange needs to support Social Entrepreneurs to avoid duplication of effort - as this is a waste of effort and resources - this is what differentiates the third sector from the private sector.

In some of the posts, the question of competition has come up. I would say that this does not apply to Social Entrepreneurs - from my perspective, if I find another NGO delivering part of what I had planned to do, then I would work to collaborate with them so that their services along with mine became more accessible to our joint target market. We should not worry about competition - we should be primarily concerned with how to help Social Entrepreneurs collaborate better to improve impact and coverage. Those who do not want to collaborate don't need to use the Innovation Exchange.

What are the problems that Social Entrepreneurs are currently facing? What are possible solutions?

The below is not an exhausive list - this list has been built up from my own experiences and that of my fellow Social Entrepreneurs that I am in contact with:

(1) Linking up with other social enterprise start-ups working in the same sector

As an example, I received some funding from UnLtd* last year to facilitate the start up of my idea. In order to avoid duplication and to find portential partners, I asked my UnLtd* for a listing of the other individuals (they have funded circa 7,000 community projects since their start-up) that they had funded in my sector...I was astonished when they told me to go through the previous newsletters as they had not collated a list by sector, expertise etc. I am sure that the National Lottery has the same issue. Somehow they do not think it a priority to connect up budding Social Entrepreneurs with like-minded people.

Possible Solution: a growing online network where Social Entrepreneurs can connect up with each other (locally, nationally, globally). This will enable them to:

  • Find models that working in other locations and incorporate in the location that they are covering
  • Find collaboration partners for larger projects....enabling them to provide a wider range of value-adding services to the same target market
  • Find role models that they can get mentoring from
  • Minimise reinventing the wheel (wasting scarce resources and energy) by learning from other successful business models

(2) Linking up with collaborators from other industries

Many innovative projects involve working with partners from other "industries" (these can be from the third sector or from the other two sectors) who have not previously served the target market of the project. As an example, the Work Empowerment Foundation (WEF) is currently in the process of creating a employability skills programme for undergraduates. We have just completed the prototype pilot (our basic proof of concept) at UEL (University of East London) with another social enterprise (Energize Partnerships). Energize do not currently work with university students - they provide leadership consultancy and they work with NEAT young people using peer mentoring. In our joint employability project, we have combined their leadership training with their peer mentoring technology to serve a new target market, university students. The UEL employability department and the students who participated in the prototype pilot are now supporting the "WEF - Energize" partnership in a co-creation capacity to market the programme to other students, other universities, and national employers. We also intend to work with a team of 3-5 universities, students, graduate employers and community organisations to co-create community projects that will help the students to demonstrate the employability skills that they have just aquired to potential employers (and present on their resumes).

At the present, apart from with the use of creative networking and pure luck, it is a challenge to develop innovative projects like the one described above.

Possible solution: Create a forum where Social Entrepreneurs can post up collaborative projects that they want to develop - inviting feedback and potential partnerships. This forum will be open to other Social Entrepreneurs, individuals who want to give back to the community (personal social responsibility), and also to private sector organisations (corporate social responsibility). Here partnerships will formed, ideas can be tested with protoype pilots to develop proof of concept, and projects can be developed for funding and roll-out. It would also be great if investers are part of the loop so that projects are developed to be fundable (saving a lot of anxiety and stress).

(3) Getting projects funded

At the present, third sector organisations are all going for the same sources of funding (trusts, corporate funding, government contracts). In essence, the number of innovative projects are going up but the amount of funding is staying the same. This causes undue competition and the stifling of collaborative innovation as everyone grabs for the same slice of the pie. Also, new innovative start-ups are penalized in this system - if they cannot show a proven track record of several years, then they will not get the funding no matter how great the idea is. This promotes more of the same rather than innovative solutions to the recipients in the public. We need to open up more sources of funding and give innovative projects another way of proving that they can deliver.

Possible solution: Create a forum where projects requiring funding can be posted and supported. In order to be on this forum, the project will need to demonstrate that it will be able to deliver to proposed budget through the use of cutting edge project management (which a lot of third sector organisations have a complete lack of - this results in good projects failing and funders loosing confidence in the delivers of the project). The project will also need to provide transparency of progress to funders as the project progresses. This added confidence that the project will be delivered will increase the funding pool available as more individuals (personal social responsibility) will want to invest in projects because they can see where their money is going and the change that they have helped to create - also companies (corporate social responsibility) will feel more inspired to make social investments in exciting projects as their investment is more of a sure thing. Additionally, the project management process (if correctly applied using the phased-gated process) will mean that projects can be stopped early on if they are not on track of delivering.

(4) Exposure to new ideas

It is a challenge to be exposed to new social ideas which greatly helps to spark off creativity. Last year I attended the Skoll Social Entrepreneur Conference in Oxford. I have never been so inpired - here I saw that one person can make a difference. Also, I was exposed to the many different ways that others were using to solve social problems. This experience really sparked off my own creativity as I explored how what they were doing could be applied to what I was doing. For example, how could micro finance to applied to work empowerment?

Possible solution: a show case forum of cool social change ideas - and Social Entrepreneurs can have a discussion (online and offline) about how they could be applied to their own projects. I believe that this could be the doorway to a step change in innovation in the third sector, as Social Entrepreneurs in the different organisations help each other to innovate.

More thoughts to follow.... please contact me on 0771 713 2026 (or by email  if anyone has any questions on this post. I hope that this helps in the proposal development.


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