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So you want to be a social entrepreneur? Think again.

I like to think I'm a trendy guy. I tuck my roll neck into my high-waisted trousers, I eat vegan over twice a week and I relish the opportunity to read GQ in a hipster cafe... Coffee shop! Sorry, I mean coffee shop. Oh, and did I mention how socially aware I am? 

Trends are dangerous because they manipulate our motivations and distort the truth. Roll necks are counterproductive once you're in an important meeting in a room that has been heated according to Manchester City's goal scoring record, and all you're wearing underneath is a t-shirt with an image of a frog puffing on a cigar saying, "frogetaboutit!". I tell myself that my champagne Veganism is "for the environment", but what about the footprint left by my imported supplements: avocados from Mexico, quinoa from Peru, soy from Africa, seaweed from Japan? And GQ? All it does is bleed my bank account dry by encouraging me to buy futile hair products irresistibly advertised by an airbrushed Eddie Redmayne.

Things that are noble and functional in their own right can sometimes lose their sense of purpose when they get swept up in a trend.

I recently came across an academic called Daniella Papi Thornton (PT). PT is the Deputy Director at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. Her recent no-punch-pulling work has sought to bring attention to what she refers to as 'Heroprenuership'; defined as "the promotion and hero-worshipping of entrepreneurship as the ultimate sign of success, leading us towards a world with a proliferation of repeated and disjointed efforts and too few people looking to join and grow the best organisations, leading us to a world where no one wants to be".

Speaking at a TED event in April this year, PT recalled a time when true social entrepreneurship was about fixing and transforming broken systems. Instead of 'social entrepreneurs' you had 'system-change leaders' who weren't waking up dreaming about their next big pitch but about creating tangible and meaningful change in a broken society. It was the brokenness, and a deep understanding of it, that motivated their ideas. These folk were the campaigners, the crusaders, the protagonists of their time. They were, in PT's words, married to solving a problem, not married to their own solution. 

As I watched and reflected upon PT's old fashioned rhetorical wallop, I reluctantly admitted that my own prerogatives had started to become dangerously attached to becoming a successful businessman rather than becoming successful at fixing broken systems. What is my motivation for getting up in the morning? Where do I see myself in 10 years time? Is it on a distinguished platform, revelling in my success as I proselytise to the masses? Or is it on the front-lines, in the dirt, living the problems I want to help fix?

Resco is a company that has always been married to solving social problems. Our CEO never set out to be a social entrepreneur, and every one of our staff fell into this line of work, in what has become known - trendily - as the fourth sector, simply because they longed to see system change, not because they longed to be the next Blake Mycoskie (TOMS Shoes). We started on this journey because we wanted to share in the brokenness of the long-term unemployed, helping to transform their world and to create system change from the grassroots up. It is so important that we never lose sight of our purpose - of why it is we do what we've set out to do. Resco's 'why', one of my colleagues recently asserted, is but a sum of every 'why' that sits at the heart of each of its staff. We must be willing to place our motivations under the microscope every week and remind ourselves that our own stories are part of a wider narrative - a tapestry, and one that no individual can or should transcend. 

You might be thinking that humans are naturally self-motivated. So what if their desire is to become great in their own right? At least some good will come out of it. Or, to look at it from another angle: if our altruism has just become an extension of our own narcissism, can it still be inherently 'good'?

This way of thinking is often referred to as Psychological Egoism. I absolutely agree that mankind seems to be naturally self-motivated and egoistic. But this is a descriptive view that speaks of how things are, not of how things ought to be. I do not believe that mankind ought to be self-motivated. At its very core, social business is about how things ought to be. It is about looking at how things are, spotting brokenness and distortion, and then building and creating change through sustainable structures of transformation, so that we can create the kind of world that ought to be. Just because we can all acknowledge that self-motivation lies at the centre of the human heart does not excuse us from recognising, harnessing and subduing those attitudes through daily self-transformation.

This process is particularly important when a good thing becomes a trendy thing. Trends and fads subtly appeal to our egoism and so can ensnare our normative posture along with our sense of purpose. As such, we must regularly stop to check our motivations. At Resco, we try to sit down on a termly basis, often in our teams, and ask the question: "why are we doing what we are doing"? We ask this question individually and corporately and it helps anchor us in our 'why'. If we have strayed from our individual or corporate purpose, then we implement steps to realign ourselves. Why not try this yourself? Either on your own or with your team. Here are some further questions that could help you in understanding your own why:

  • What gets you out of bed in the morning?
  • What brings you joy?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What was the experience that led you to do what you are doing today?
  • What do you think about when you dream of the future?

Roll-necks might come and go, but comfort is a timeless commodity; veganism might ebb and flow, but we will forever be intrinsically dependent on our environment; and GQ might appear and disappear from the barber's coffee table, but the written word will never cease to move the human heart. Similarly, 'social business' might peak and trough, but our systems will never tire of being transformed and renewed, nor will the need for social innovation ever die out.

 Hugh Chichester, Business Manager Resco Living



 

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