Big Ideas: Nick Temple on the ‘long tail’ of social entrepreneurship
In our Big Ideas series, we check in regularly with creative thinkers in the field of social innovation. We want to know what they’re working on, what questions they’re wrestling with, and what opportunities and challenges they see up ahead for the sector.
Nick Temple is the director of policy and communications at the London-based School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE). The SSE is a franchise that operates 10 schools across the U.K., and other countries, which serve 200+ social entrepreneurs each year through an action-learning approach. Here, Nick speaks about the SSE’s work and his vision for making the field of social innovation more inclusive.
On what distinguishes the School for Social Entrepreneurs: “In the school, we’ll have a retired doctor next to a refugee who has just arrived in the country next to someone who is long-term unemployed next to a new graduate. They can all be social entrepreneurs and they can all share characteristics in that they are applying their skills for a social benefit, and applying what they learn directly to what they are starting up. If we start tying things like a written exam or deep theory that doesn’t seem relevant to them, it just sends them running for the hills.”
On learning beyond traditional universities: “Although [SSE is] called a school, there are no textbooks, no blackboards, no teacher or lecturer. Practitioners are coming in and sharing their experience and knowledge. We know from our work that most entrepreneurs learn by doing. They’re prone to action rather than reflection. They respond to their peers, who understand the process they’re going through and have faced similar obstacles.”
On the potential for elitism in the field of social innovation – and how to steer clear of it: “In the American context, my impression over here is that the majority of social entrepreneurship education takes place in pretty high-end universities. The reality is it’s a relatively small number of people who can go to those high-end universities and therefore, you risk creating elitism within a movement that’s about equality.
“While, I’m not arguing against those places (we need new entrants to the movement from everywhere), we want to develop more social entrepreneurs and open up the field. So we should be considering education in its broadest sense – not just an accreditation or an MBA module within a traditional educational institution.”
On the “long tail” of social entrepreneurship: “We tend to find that social investors focus on a relatively small group of big-scale organizations. The argument that Chris Anderson makes in The Long Tail is that Amazon.com makes as much money from its backlist, i.e., selling five to 10 copies of a whole host of random books, as it does from selling many thousand copies of a few books, i.e. the best sellers. My argument, in terms of the impact in social entrepreneurship, is the same. If you aggregate the impact of a huge number of social entrepreneurs doing relatively small-scale activity, then that impact is potentially equivalent to – or even more than – a small number of social entrepreneurs having a large-size activity. It’s an ‘and-and’, not an ‘either-or’ argument.”
On the potential byproduct of training social entrepreneurs even if they don’t continue on with their own enterprises: “In our experience, there’s a lot that’s gained through the process of becoming a social entrepreneur. Not all of that person’s projects will fly and that’s OK. They may go on to be a really active citizen or become a fantastic employer or manager of a social enterprise. They gain confidence, skills, networks, and employability.”
Photo: Courtesy of Nick Temple