The great contribution of this book, edited by Alex Nicolls, now a Professor at the Said Business School in Oxford, is that it brings together in one place, and for the first time, the exciting stories of social entrepreneurship, analysis of issues and the academic research agenda. In doing so, the book is well-placed to look forward.
Social enterprise and the wider agenda of social entrepreneurship is a creative and innovative agenda of new initiatives to deal with social need, harnessing business approaches to social objectives. Alex Nicholls, in his introduction, notes that has been ‘an unprecedented wave of growth in social entrepreneurship globally over the last ten years’ (page 3). Indeed, as another author in the compendium says, the ‘hallmark of social entrepreneurship is its’ ability to combine social interests with business practices to effect social change’ (page 205). The sector is not only expanding but in the light of ‘government failure’ or ‘social market failure’ new partnerships between the market, the state and civil society are essential. This of course raises questions of capital, of the place of philanthropy and so on which the book begins, but only begins to address.
The book is divided into four parts: New Perspectives, New Theories, New Models and New Directions. My only quibble is it is not all ‘new’ but it is all together in one place. The first section consists of the inspiring stories, the second of the academic research base, the third of approaches and paradigms around social entrepreneurship and the fourth challenges for the future. The variety of voices is both helpful and slightly confusing. It is excellent to bring praxis and theory together, but the style and tone did sometimes seem slightly discordant between chapters. Some of the academic chapters were somewhat turgid and somewhat repetitive. Consequently, they felt the least integrated. The answer really lies in recognising this is a first-class reference book and probably not to be read cover to cover in a single sitting.
The book it at its strongest in setting out the vision of practitioners and also setting out the different structural approaches to social entrepreneurship. Muhammed Yunus gets the volume off to a visionary start. Yunus founded Grameen Bank providing credit and loans to the poorer sections of Bangladeshi society. The loans range from study loans, micro-finance for establishing small businesses to loans for housing. The record speaks for itself, Grameen Bank ‘lends out half a billion dollars a year, in loans averaging under $200 (£116) to 4.5m borrowers, without collateral, and maintains a 99 per cent repayment record’ (page 44). One cannot help wonder whether domestic debates around credit, finance and even the role of credit unions in the UK seems rather stale when compared to more market-orientated social solutions? Yunis is clear that profit is not a dirty word. Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, refers to the productivity gain by bringing together business and social systems ‘that have not talked for centuries’ (page 51).
Certainly, for those for whom this field is relatively new, chapter 10, dealing with the variety of structural models of social entrepreneurship is essential and helpful reading. The basic distinction is between embedded models (the social programme is fully expressed within the organisation’s business, for example, the provision of health education through a for-profit business model), integrated models (the programmes are linked, for example, the provision of health education to poorer communities funded by the sale of health education on commercial terms elsewhere) and external models (the programme are not linked, for example, health education is funded by the commercial sale of a different product in a different market). There are, of course, many hybrids. Amongst the more conceptual chapters the challenge of bringing social entrepreneurship to the academic table, developing curricula and inter-disciplinary rigour whilst maintain a practitioner approach was an interesting read (chapter 13).
The book raises a number of important questions for the future. Conceptually the development of the idea of ‘blended value’ is an essential building block in the development of new rapprochement between enterprises which seek an economic return and those that seek a social return. These categories are not mutually exclusive. The provision of capital and indeed the availability of appropriate financial products (e.g. social impact bonds) and investors are increasingly recognised as essential to the future development of the sector and raise questions that really belong to the period after this book’s first publication.
Alex Nicholls has done a great service in putting this material together and into the public domain. Yes, the volume is probably more of a reference resource but it is none the worse for that. To put academic research and market practice together is an important linkage too often not made. As suggested, things have developed and moved on further and it seems to me that a new volume would be beneficial. The field is an increasingly important one; and we need to do everything possible to encourage innovative thinking and the placing of this material into context, conversation and collaboration.
“Social Entrepreneurship: New Models of Sustainable Social Change”, edited by Alex Nicholls, was published in 2006 by Oxford University Press (ISBN – 10: 0199283885). 498pp.
Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.