Opinion: The seeds are sown for social entrepreneurs

Only a decade ago, few of us knew about social entrepreneurship.

How could we? We didn't have a shared concept or name for this vital new movement. Today, few of us can imagine a future without it.

All the features of a rich, more plural and compassionate economy in which social ventures can thrive are rapidly springing into place.

Moreover, social entrepreneurs have delivered on their early promise in some inspirational ways. The 80-and-rising employee-owned leisure trusts, which run public gyms and swimming pools, have attracted new investment and driven up quality where local authorities have failed. Social firms such as PackIT and Six Mary's Place have shown that adults with learning disabilities can play a full role in business and society. These are the modern, sustainable solutions we need to transform welfare.

However, if social entrepreneurship is to move from the margins to seize the mainstream, it will need different tools. The pioneers have demonstrated well-honed survival skills, but we need to lower the personal and organisational costs if many more are to follow.

The new Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship aims to help in five ways. First, by helping establish an adequate knowledge base. Solid research on social entrepreneurs' impacts, for example, is just one area for attention if they are to attract more than ad-hoc resources and political support.

Second, by developing more and different talent. For example, good finance managers who can combine commercial prudence with social returns are in short supply, as are entrepreneurial directors and trustees. Third, we aim to broaden and connect the networks which facilitate new know-how, trading and peer support. The Skoll Centre is uniquely placed to overcome traditional boundaries between different sectors, doers and thinkers, and like-minded people around the world. Fourth, we want to help policy-makers benefit from the insight we gain.

Finally, in time, we aim to develop a hands-on lab for accelerating the roll-out of the best new models. After all, while getting the policy right is important, the acid test of any social initiative is when real change is happening on the ground.

Rowena Young, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Said Business School, Oxford University.

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