15 Nov 2012 05:00pm

Celebrating the stars of social entrepreneurship

I’m not even sure I am allowed to say this but, secretly, as an accountant, and the butt of all the ‘boring’ jokes, I’ve always been more than a bit envious of entrepreneurs. They are the rock stars of business; glamorous, charismatic, creative and successful. Not only did they make their thing happen, but they thought of it in the first instance

Despite all of that, I think they have been out-trumped by a new group; the social entrepreneur.

Today, as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week, there will be a celebration of this group of entrepreneurs on Social Enterprise Day.  Social entrepreneurs and their ventures are all about delivering positive social change. The social change agenda sits across many areas and so ventures might relate to sustainability, health, education, employment, youth, diet and nutrition. They may be local, regional, national or international. They may be structured as companies, charities, for-profit, not-for-profit – the variety of ventures is broad but the output is very specific. Social entrepreneurs aspire and strive to deliver positive social change in innovative and financially sustainable ways.

On 7th January 2013, I join UnLtd as Director of Ventures. UnLtd have spent the last ten years successfully supporting social entrepreneurs in the UK. One of my key responsibilities will be to run a collaborative programme with The Big Lottery Fund called Big Venture Challenge.

Our current cohort are 25 of the best social ventures in the UK, all of whom are ready to scale-up. Take a look at our investment book

In the UK, social enterprise is an important sector. The Annual Survey of Small Businesses UK 2010 estimated that there are approximately 68,000 social enterprises in the UK contributing at least £24bn to the economy. Social enterprises are estimated to employ 800,000 people.

Social ventures are growing and growing. I think this is for several reasons:

1. Many nations have a strong history of altruistic behaviour but this is no longer the remit of rich, Victorian, industrialists but something that many people are interested in embracing every day. The British consuming public are becoming everyday altruists and they are interested in products and services that are inherently ‘good’. Fifteen years ago, Fairtrade was a proposition you might find on a, frankly, not very good coffee product, hidden on a remote shelf in a weirdly branded package. But now it is totally mainstream, featured on a broad range of exceptional products, at acceptable prices.

2. Britain, like many other countries right now, is hard up and there are aspects of essential, national social development that we can no longer afford. We need social entrepreneurs to help us find new and innovative ways to keep delivering social change in an affordable and financially sustainable way.

3. More and more, people want to work in an environment where they deliver more than profits. People seem to want to make a difference and a contribution in a different way, and social ventures provide a perfect place for business skills to contribute differently. Call me ‘fluffy’, but I am a good example of this – I am an FCCA and ex-Financial Director who has spent the last 7 years helping to make an extra £10m for Oxfam Trading and £5m for One to build water project in Africa by selling FMCG products in the UK.

Despite the outputs and the reverence, being a social entrepreneur looks hard. Firstly, the social enterprise sector is not yet fully established. There are many organisations including UnLtd who have worked hard to begin this process and who will continue to do so until the social entrepreneur is instantly understood. Government will play an essential role in making this happen and the benefits will be material and tangible.

The next biggest challenge for the social entrepreneur relates to goals.

Whilst social entrepreneurs may well set themselves commercial goals and adopt many practices from the business world, they are fundamentally about delivering social change. The vast majority of the ecosystem surrounding products and services is set around headlining financial outputs; revenue, profit, share value, dividends and this creates challenges for social entrepreneurs.

How do you find investment in your social venture when you provide an app for children with learning difficulties but your potential investor primarily wants a chunky, biannual dividend? How do you invest in reducing truancy rates in the UK whilst your potential investor wants a return of capital invested +6% in three years?

The answer from UnLtd can be seen amongst the twelve ventures that have successfully been funded. This has been achieved with lots and lots of searching and networking, collaborating, talking, flexing, marrying interests, building investment relationships, learning and sharing what works and what does not.

The output is scalable, viable, positive social change. That seems worth having. In the entrepreneurial world, social entrepreneurs are the new, shining stars. If you like what we do, follow us @BigVentureChall


Julie Devonshire has over 20 years of experience working across sectors, specialising in business development. She will join UnLtd from Oxfam Trading where she created and delivered a strategy to boost trading profits to help fund Oxfam’s world-class development work. Prior to this, Julie was COO of award-winning social venture One, and the CEO of The One Foundation. One sold a range of products in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and others, with 100% of profits donated to life changing project in Africa.