Going mainstream – what does it mean, anyway?

Going mainstream – what does it mean, anyway?

In February 2016 we brought together over 180 supporters of social entrepreneurs at the Big Social 2016: The Big Share. In a new series of blogs, we explore some of the hot topics that supporters were talking about and look at what we’ll be doing next. In this first post, UnLtd policy lead Tom Fox reflects on the Going Mainstream panel.

I had the pleasure of chairing a panel session at Big Social 2016 on the topic of Going Mainstream. From the outset, it was clear this is a juicy topic.

Earlier in the day, keynote speaker Margaret Mountford said she thought social entrepreneurship was already mainstream – there are various Masters courses to choose from after all, and social enterprise is often on David Cameron’s lips. Job done?

Delegates didn’t think so. A straw poll showed that only one of the 180 or so social entrepreneurs and supporters in the room felt that social entrepreneurship was already mainstream. Almost all considered it important that social entrepreneurship goes mainstream. Yet only about half said they were clear what that really means.

Fortunately, delegates and the twittersphere came up with a good range of suggestions for how things would look if social entrepreneurship were mainstream. Here’s a selection:

Our panellists

Our great panellists had plenty to say too. Dawn Whiteley of the National Enterprise Network pointed to recent research that suggests that over a quarter of people accessing mainstream business support have a particular social or community purpose at the core of their businesses. But she thought the chances of a social entrepreneur being recognised and given the most appropriate support are still limited – work yet to do here.

Mona Shah, founder of Harry Specters, a business that makes great chocolates and gives people with autism work opportunities, stressed that not enough people understand social entrepreneurship. For consumer-facing social ventures like hers, it’s important that social entrepreneurship has an increased profile. This would help social entrepreneurs to differentiate their products, so increasing market opportunities.

Professor Christine Chow, a senior executive at Hermes Investment Management, explained the role that institutional investors can play in opening up opportunities for social entrepreneurs, by influencing the companies they invest in to support and buy from social entrepreneurs. But she felt that social entrepreneurs being able to access mainstream finance was a long way off.

Finally, Natalie Campbell, founder of A Very Good Company, argued that in her opinion social entrepreneurship will only truly be mainstream when all entrepreneurs are social entrepreneurs, and when all businesses are set up to do good.

Not all will agree with this angle. But even if you do see this as the ultimate goal, this raises a tactical dilemma. Is it better to differentiate social entrepreneurship from mainstream business, in order to highlight what is special about it, and to demonstrate its value? Or, as one delegate observed is this counterproductive, only serving to marginalise social entrepreneurship and keep it in a cul de sac?

Do we have a language problem?

Other participants expressed concern about the language we use, some even suggesting that the term social entrepreneurship is inherently marginalising and confusing. If we mean doing good by doing business, why not say so?

My own view is that it’s necessary to treat social entrepreneurship as a concept, a movement and a logic through which we recognise the activities and collective effort and impact of social entrepreneurs. Distinguishing it from other business (and even some forms of ‘good’ business) is a tactic through which we can demonstrate its effectiveness and value, and draw more people in.

Where there was more consensus was on the need to use language that people can relate to, and where necessary being interpreters between the different lexicons of business, government and civil society. We should use different language depending on what is meaningful for different audiences.

And looking beyond what going mainstream means, to what we should do to get there, delegates suggested various tactics:

Other areas that we and many others are exploring include helping social entrepreneurs to find better routes to market, and embedding social entrepreneurship into mainstream skills and careers frameworks – such as developing an apprenticeship for entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs.

So what did we learn?

My main takeaway was that as others have pointed out, mainstreaming means different things to different people, and even if we all agreed on the vision, there are still choices to be made about tactics to get there. That’s not as problematic as it sounds – many of the different routes to mainstreaming are mutually supportive and we should pursue them simultaneously.

At the heart of our strategy is allowing social entrepreneurs themselves to define mainstreaming, in their own visions and actions. But we recognise that we have an important role to play – as UnLtd and as a wider movement – in breaking down the barriers that social entrepreneurs face, and in helping them to deliver to their full potential – both individually, and collectively.

The Big Share: supporting supporters

If you’re someone already supporting social entrepreneurs or are interested to know more about how we’ll be pushing forward with ‘going mainstream’, sign up to our supporter newsletter: The Big Share


See more from Big Social 2016: The Big Share – presentations, blogs and lots of pictures!

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