Beyond Social Enterprise – the emergence of societal entrepreneurship

The New Pioneers is the title of a recent book (1)  on models of social entrepreneurship by the celebrated Anglo-Danish entrepreneur Tania Ellis. But it could equally act as a heading for the movement of innovators – growing exponentially – who are looking to Captain Kirk-wise ‘go boldly…’ beyond social entrepreneurship. The term ‘societal enterprise’ remains relatively unheard in the UK. But it is catching-on elsewhere.

I came across this idea, recently, whilst conducting background for a new research project. That study is looking – jointly with Church Missionary Society – at the pioneering Christian missioners, who have been working for more than a decade on ‘new ways of being church’ and ‘fresh expressions’ of Christian community. There is a burgeoning group of radical Christian leaders who see the future of church as within enterprises.

Their idea is not the conventional one, which is to spin-off enterprises from the local church. Instead, they see the enterprise as the church. No religious building, congregation, services or collections. Church becomes embedded (incarnated, in their language) through the activity of entrepreneurial Christian communities. Sounds weird? Well, our research will, hopefully, uncover the realities. But, whilst church may not be everyone’s thing, the idea of establishing enterprises with a radical ‘kingdom’ alternative is developing.

The Winner Builds It All
The bigger issue is the principles upon which the notion of societal entrepreneurship is founded. The term seems to have arisen in Sweden (2). As ever, rule Number One, for my students, applies: if you want to understand what this model of social enterprise is all about – amongst the dozens of competing ones – look at the context.

Sweden – and much of Scandinavia – operates a social democratic contract in which it is assumed that the state will deal with social problems, in return for higher taxation within civil society. On that basis ‘social enterprise’ sounds like paternalism, charity or an abnegation of duty by statutory authorities (3).  This may appear strange to contemporary Anglo-Saxons (the slightly pejorative term used for Brits and Americans in some parts of Continental Europe). We have long-since sacrificed the principles of an all-encompassing welfare state – from cradle-to-grave – on the altar of “deficit-reduction” (4). Consequently, we see social enterprises as a necessary form of new hybrid business, with social functions yoked to financial sustainability, facilitating the marketplace to innovate in finding solutions to society’s problems.

As Alex Nicholls (5) points out, in the conventional Anglo-Saxon model there is a tendency to create ‘heroic pioneers’ (the Branson phenomenon), who divert attention away from the critical issue of challenging – and changing, even when the heroes might wish to – the context in which social problems arise. But the era of mutual self-congratulation is shifting, to one where new entrepreneurs are as interested in changing society and bringing about social justice as in cleaning-up after the failures of capitalism. Hence, societal entrepreneurship – where instead of the winner taking it all, she wants to build it all, afresh. Sounds like the cue for a Swedish song.

Reality or rhetoric?
The danger is that this is simply a fancy, terminological debate – new models for what we’ve already understood. This is by no means to decry the brilliance of one million social entrepreneurs worldwide, who believe in changing society ‘one cup of coffee or brick at a time’. But, there appear to be some examples of societal entrepreneurship out there.

The Swedish example that Lindhult points to is the distinctive model of science parks and business incubators that have developed across his part of Scandinavia. He argues that the organisation of new venture planning within the region of central Sweden, conceptualised around ‘the 7 p’s framework’ – product, process, person, platform, partners, performance, propogation – has initiated a more societal model of not-for-profit entrepreneurship. Perhaps, an eight ‘p’ – purpose, which is connected to his notion of partnership – might better explain the significance of this movement.

The key to the ‘societal’ sobriquet, in this case, seems to be the range of stakeholder and social capital networks that have been developed, to deliver a regional change in capacity-building for social entrepreneurs. It is likely that the Swedes are conceptually ahead of their practice. But, they have contributed an important extension to the debate about hybrid business models, for the purpose of delivering social justice.

A more developed model comes from the Western Cape, South Africa (6), which, again, arises from the activity of the local church. In effect, the model that has been birthed in Simondium is one of harnessing the skills, resources and talents of the existing church congregation, so that they can more effectively engage in entrepreneurial activity, within that predominately agricultural and tourist marketplace of the Western Cape.

This is entrepreneurship-based community development in the making. It remains fledgling but Simondium has travelled some distance. They are seeing the community as fundamentally entrepreneurial. The business of societal change is possible through the local organisation of social enterprise, rather than being based in the activity of a few pioneer heroes.

This brings me to a third and final model to be mentioned here. For some time I have been observing the extension of a range of social enterprises in a small, outer-rural location in the Northern Pennines of England. The communities of Alston, Alston Moor and Nenthead don’t seek to attract attention. They may not value being mentioned here. But, they do deserve some concerted investigation.

As is commented in the latest update from the Cybermoor website (7). “For the village which has come together to create a thriving village shop, built its own snowplough and is in the process of saving its Methodist Chapel, Nenthead village has yet another asset which is ready and waiting to be taken advantage of … Nenthead Village Hall, which has stood proudly overlooking the village for almost 200 years!”

And this is only a fraction of the story. In the other villages of this most isolated part of Cumbria there are two award-winning bakeries, a range of community shops, tourist outlets, a social enterprise steam railway, a community ambulance and a leading example of digitally networked social care help for the elderly and vulnerable. The point is that this very developed model has emerged over more than a decade. It is the result of community engagement in changing the social context through ethical business and soci(et)al enterprise.

Fragments of the whole
Societal entrepreneurship is possible and is happening across the world. Other leading examples include Mondragon in the Basque region, Mohammed Yunus’ Grameen micro-financing unions, begun in Bangladesh, the Ubuntu drive throughout South Africa, Enova in Mexico and thousands more. As Joseph Schumpeter, the social philosopher, once commented: “Capitalism inevitably and by virtue of the very logic of its civilization creates, educates and subsidizes a vested interest in social unrest.”8 One of the latest phenomena of this is the developing movement from social to societal entrepreneurship.

1- Ellis, T, 2010, The New Pioneers – sustainable business success through social innovation and social entrepreneurship, Chichester: John Wiley

2- Gawell, M, Johannisson, B, and Lundqvist, M, 2009, Entrepreneurship in the Name of Society, Stockholm: KK Foundation

3- Erik Lindhult comments that, “An underlying assumption seems to be that “society” should take care of social welfare as a right of citizens. Social entrepreneurship from this perspective tends to have a ring of charity and the uncertain provision of social values based on the generosity of the richer.”, 2011, “Soci(et)al Entrepreneurship”, 56th Annual ICSB World Conference, Stockholm, Sweden, 15-18 June

4- By which is usually meant, net deficit-reduction i.e. a reduction in the rate of increase in Government borrowing, rather than gross reduction, actually bringing the total deficit down. In 2011-12, the UK Coalition Government has presided over an increase in gross deficit from 61% to 65% of GDP.

5- Nicholls, A, 2006 (Ed), Social Entrepreneurship – new models of sustainable social change, Oxford: University Press

6-Swart, I & Orsmond, E, 2011, Making a difference? Societal entrepreneurship and its significance for a practical theological ecclesiology in a local Western Cape context, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies, 67(2)

7- last accessed 30th August, 2012.


Tony Bradley is Director of The SEED Centre at Liverpool Hope Business School, Liverpool Hope University.  Tony lectures and writes widely on social enterprise, ethical business and alternative economics.  He is an Anglican Priest, former TV Producer and is currently writing a major movie script with its backgrond in the banking crisis.  He is married to Carol, and lives with their two daughters and two dogs in the English Lake District.

3 Comments on Beyond Social Enterprise – the emergence of societal entrepreneurship

  1. Philip A Birch // September 5, 2012 at 2:08 pm // Reply

    Thanks Tony. Extremely interesting. I very much look forward to discussing this further. In the mean time, are their inclinations in the UK towards the Swedish approach? Influential business leaders, politicians, maybe, that are supporters? I will research the Cumbrian models of course.

    • I’m beginning to research this wider movement – both through faith-based enterprises – and more generally. Ronnie Lessem and Alexander Schieffer – the authors of Integral Economics – and I will be examining this phenomenon in parts of the UK, incl Merseyside, especially in relation to the “post-Olympics spirit”

  2. The intense gravitational pull of a (now global) corrupt and painfully incorrect monetary system is the overpowering white elephant in the room that will crush all forms of long term social change, by any name, until it is directly dealt with.

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