Social entrepreneurs add zest to RSA's civic innovation mission

I’m really hopeful that the RSA social entrepreneur’s network, launched last night, will bring a fresh burst of energy to the contribution the 250-year-old organisation can make to social action and civic innovation. The RSA has an excellent events programme, staff-led projects … and some 28,000 members (Fellows) across every profession and sector.
This diversity is a great strength – but as I’ve written before, this means there is no one shared passion around which people gather. The aim of the Fellowship, expressed in a draft Charter, is in part to work together on projects for social benefit. The Charter currently says:

In order to achieve this, we commit to working collaboratively and practically to make a positive difference to the world around us. We will be open to new ideas and committed to spreading the best of them. We will be supportive of others and respectful of differences. We will be honest, courteous and transparent in our working methods. We will be generous with our time and abilities not seeking personal or financial gain and measuring our success by the impact that we have, not the recognition we receive.

Implicit in this is the idea that Fellows will voluntarily collaborate on projects for social benefit … but not make any money or further their business interests. So far this approach hasn’t been very successful. Back in 2007 the RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor  promoted the idea of the Fellowship as a network for civic innovation, with a very successful event where lots of idea were generated. However, in practice it proved difficult to follow through on any scale – there’s wasn’t strong enough motivation or support. There’s now a Catalyst Fund to support project ideas from Fellows, but sums are small, and Fellows can’t get paid. Useful, but again modest.
I think the social entrepreneur network can add a complementary dimension to this very worthwhile voluntary work of the Fellowship and its Council … now bubbling up on the central networking site and many other local sites.
Social entrepreneurship recognises that you can develop an enterprise for social benefit while also making money. As Malcolm Scovil of Leapanywhere, who is promoting the network, said when I interviewed him last night, its OK to have a business that makes profits as well as making an impact  on society, particularly where those profits are re-invested in the enterprise. Making money is not a bad thing – so do well by doing good. Malcolm wrote in the network group:

My two cents on whether social entrepreneurs should be rewarded financially if they build successful, profitable organisations…hell YES.
However, would-be social entrepreneurs shouldn’t wait around for somebody to deliver a profitable social business model on a silver platter.
Those of us that want to create real sustainable impact in the world need to innovate even more than the average entrepreneur.
We need to rack our brains and try and try and try again not just to get a good idea off the ground but to get both good AND sustainable ideas off the ground.
This network should become an invaluable platform for showcasing social business models that work for both society and for the risk takers (that means real economic benefits to investors, founders and the teams in the trenches!).
Indeed, we can go further than that. This network already has over 175 social entrepreneurs committed to the future of business for the common good.
We can challenge each other to generate new models and to merge existing ones to come up with better businesses. Then we can set these in motion, learn from mistakes, make them succeed and then mentor the next generation in how they can do the same.
Action action action.

Malcolm thinks that William Shipley and other founders of the RSA, meeting in the coffee shops of Covent Garden, were early social entrepreneurs.
I think the social entrepreneur network is important for the RSA – and social action – on several counts. Most importantly, the people who turned up last night, and the many who couldn’t make it to London, have great stories to tell about how individuals and small groups can make a difference in the world. We heard four brief presentations last night, and I’m sure it could have been 40. These stories will provide substance to Matthew Taylor’s latest mission, which is to develop a 21st century version of the Enlightenment that fostered the origins of the RSA.
The recognition that it is OK to use RSA networks to make business connections, where these lead to social benefit, should release a lot of energy. The connections made will, I suspect, benefit not just the people and projects involved, but also increase activity online and face to face across the RSA’s diverse Fellowship. It will increase the social capital.
So what’s next? There was a comments and ideas wall at last night’s event, and I’m looking forward to a summary. Meanwhile my suggestion for a start is modest: meet up and tells good stories.
It is difficult to get a room at RSA HQ without paying for it, and the bar is rather small … but there’s now a coffee point on the ground floor where Fellows are encouraged to gather for a chat. Why not fix a time each week, and see who turns up? That’s the way the now hugely successful Tuttle Club started. (I think ace-networker and entrepreneur Oli Barrett has ideas on this front, so there’s a good chance something will happen). Then invite anyone interested to tell their story in a three minute video, posted to the network, with an invite to people to get in touch. Once we got started I’m sure there will be no problem in developing the idea, and – most importantly – coming up with ways of working outside London.
Last night’s event was made possible by the work of RSA staff including Sarah Tucker, Laura Billings, and Clare Reilly … and that’s just who I spotted. I’m know there’s been more work behind the scenes. Thanks.
Maybe I’m being over-optimistic, but I thought the event was the most interesting step towards realising the civic innovation potential of the RSA since the November 2007 get-together. There’s now a chance that some bottom-up personal passion may match the top-level thinking from Matthew Taylor on 21 century enlightenment, now clearly set out in yesterday’s blog post.


  • April 30, 2010 - 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Hi David – sounds good. I suggested to Innovation Exchange a long time ago the idea of an ‘ebay for social entrepreneurs” and your video introduction suggestion made me think of a “social entrepreneur online dating site’! It’s a good idea, albeit sensible to also have alternatives for those not comfortable with filming themselves.

  • April 30, 2010 - 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks mas – I posted this to the RSA Fellowship site too, so I’m hoping more ideas will be generated. I agree about the video … could do audio, plus more on the RSA sites. There’s an RSA Digital Engagement group meeting next week, so maybe we’ll get support there. Hope you’ll pitch in.

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