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Big Ideas: John Elkington on fighting to preserve the meaning of social entrepreneurship

   /   Sep 14th, 2010News

In our Big Ideas series, we check in regularly with leading thinkers in the field of social innovation. We want to know what they’re working on, what questions they’re wresting with, and what opportunities and challenges they see up ahead for the sector.

Today we hear from John Elkington, co-founder and Executive Chairman of the London-based Volans, which works with entrepreneurs, businesses, investors and governments globally to develop and scale innovative solutions to financial, social, and environmental challenges. He’s also the co-founder of the think tank and consultancy SustainAbility, and the author of numerous books, including The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, co-authored with Pamela Hartigan. Read on for highlights from our conversation.

On the historic difficulty in getting companies to take social entrepreneurship seriously: “I’ve worked for 35 years with big companies, trying to get them to pay attention to sustainability and social entrepreneurs. In the past, most of them just didn’t know what to make of the space. A few said, ‘We understood it when you were trying to get us to pay attention to NGOs, because they have the potential to damage our brands [by highlighting irresponsible behavior or calling for boycotts], but we don’t understand why you’re trying to get us to pay attention to social entrepreneurs.’”

On how that’s changing: “To our surprise and delight, we started to find companies from around the world coming to us. For example, we work with Allianz, the financial services company, [which] has a fast-track program for rising executives which includes exposure to social entrepreneurs. Allianz fields some of their best people to work with leading social entrepreneurs.”

On other signs of progress: “Pamela Hartigan and I give 40 to 50 keynotes each year. One of the things we’ve noticed is that the size of the events and their prominence is growing all the time – and it’s starting to cross-cut different sectors.”

On the limits of corporate social responsibility (CSR): “CSR for many companies has been framed as, ‘We’ve got to be seen to be good [and nice], we’ve got to protect ourselves as part of risk management.’ The increasing criticism of CSR flows from a recognition that even the best corporate social responsibility work is still peripheral and largely defensive. People are also beginning to realize that sustainable development is about creating new business and economic models which have the capacity to sustain a world population of 9 billion by, say, 2050. That’s a much bigger and more disruptive agenda than most CSR experts are prepared (or able) to sign their companies on for.”

On the ongoing challenges in advancing deep changes in business:Accenture recently published a survey of about 900 CEOs from around the world talking about sustainability – most say that they embrace it. But then you look at their business models, at their footprints, [and] there’s a complete mismatch between what they’re currently doing and the sustainability agenda. When companies talk about sustainability, too often what they mean – in the context of the global economic downturn – is  a return to business as usual. We’ve got to benchmark what governments, companies and [cities] are doing against a much more challenging set of longer-term objectives and metrics.

On the dangers of bandwagons and the need to protect the integrity of social entrepreneurship: “[Social entrepreneurship] is one more area where we may see elements of a bandwagon developing. On the positive side, bandwagons give that sense of positive momentum, and that’s great. But bandwagons often run off the road because the people steering them don’t know what they’re doing. Also, there’s a risk that your agenda, your language, can be co-opted and diluted by the new entrants.

“You want those breakthrough moments, but when they happen, you have to fight very energetically to preserve your original sense of what that agenda means. I think that social innovation will go through precisely the challenges that the sustainability agenda has gone through.”

Photo: John Elkington

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