Social enterprise has a bigger part to play, says Lord Mawson

'Why should the state run things just because it always has?' asks the Baptist minister and president of the Community Action Network

Lord Mawson says social entrepreneurs should start small and focus on the detail
Lord Mawson says social entrepreneurs should start small and focus on the detail

Andrew Mawson had been a Baptist minister for four and a half years in 1984 when he was sent to replace a minister who had dropped dead during a service in Bromley-by-Bow in east London. He found a run-down church with £400 in the bank and a community lacking much-needed services.

Rather than wait for the state to do something, he decided to follow his instincts. He got stuck in and opened the church building to local people, laying the foundations of the famous Bromley-by-Bow Centre, which aims to support the whole person – their health, wellbeing, learning and employment.

Thirty years later, the Bradfordian is still living in east London and describes himself as a "serial social entrepreneur".

Along with the Bromley-by-Bow Centre, which has an income of £3.94m, he has helped to create a range of projects that he believes demonstrate the potential of social entrepreneurs.

Mawson was co-founder of Community Action Network, a charity with an income of £3.19m that supports 850 social entrepreneurs across the UK, and is now its president. He is also a founding member of the east London housing association Poplar Harca, which has about 9,000 properties and had an income of £51.2m in 2012/13. Mawson, who became a crossbench peer in 2007 and is still a non-stipendiary minister, is cynical about Westminster and Whitehall, where he believes people hide away and write reports instead of listening to and engaging with people in order to understand their needs.

"It is only by engagement that you actually understand what the opportunities are," he says. "That is why this idea that you can work things out in Downing Street is completely ludicrous – you are not in touch with the raw material and the opportunity."

Mawson believes the civil service and the government deal in policies and documents without any practical experience. "It's all clean, but it doesn't get you anywhere," he adds. "They think their way into action, whereas a business person acts their way into thinking. If we could get governments to really act their way into thinking, you might then find billions of pounds of taxpayers' money spent far more effectively.

"I have gradually released myself to work with business and the public sector to try to help practical stuff happen rather than endlessly getting stuck in the treacle of the state, which only ever learns a few lessons. It is not a learning organisation and the fundamental problem is that every time a new government comes along it is talking to us for the first time."

There is no formal definition of social enterprise, but Mawson says that in its simplest form it is about applying business principles to social questions. He says: "It's a case of you'll know one when you see one."

As more charities set up social enterprises to generate revenue, Mawson says, they should always focus on the customer and the core business. "Be clear about what you want to do and why, and make sure you surround yourself with a small team with the appropriate skills – not a committee," he says.

Mawson's further advice for charities and social entrepreneurs is to focus on the detail. "You ignore it at your peril," he warns. He believes in starting small and learning all of the seemingly minor details, which is what he did when he first arrived in the East End. "I would loiter with intent, wander around the housing estates, get nosey in order to try to understand what on earth was going on," he says.

He believes that Britain has become too dependent on the state and that social enterprise and charity have a far bigger part to play now the state is "virtually bankrupt", as he puts it.

"Why should the state run things just because it has always done it?" he asks. "If social enterprises develop a core niche and they become very good at it, then why would you not want to back them?"

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