Being a social entrepreneur

Pink, Purple, Blue and Turqouise abstract image with the title 'Being a Social Entrepreneur'

Blog post by Rob de Jong, ERDF Operations Manager at School for Social Entrepreneurs Dartington, a delivery partner of the Enhance Social Enterprise Programme.

I’d like to share some personal insights into the highs and lows of being a social entrepreneur. In addition to my role at School for Social Entrepreneurs Dartington, I also graduated from one of their Social Enterprise Start-Up programmes in 2014, and am now a real live social entrepreneur in my own right delivering support services to adults with autism in the Plymouth area. My co-operative social enterprise, Working Well With Autism, has been in existence for 6 years, and during this time I have gained many insights into what it means to be a social entrepreneur – or, rather, to be one social entrepreneur working in one particular sector; because we all face different challenges and we all respond differently. To adapt what we often say about people with autism, when you’ve met one social entrepreneur, you’ve met one social entrepreneur…

For better or for worse, this is my take from the heart on my own social enterprise journey so far.

Make it personal

My commitment to my social enterprise is firmly rooted in my own personal experience. For the last 20 years or so, my family life has been shaped by autism. Education, health and social care services were inadequate.

At  the end of the day, if you feel angry or powerless about something that is meaningful to you and you want to channel those feelings in a positive way, then set up a social enterprise! You are already carrying your mission inside you– let all that energy out to make a difference…!

The personal is political

How do you make your personal mission into a social objective – how do you translate your own core values of empathy, humility, love and being truly person-centred into a tangible real benefit for a living, breathing community?

In my case, starting a social enterprise came from a need to challenge a lack of provision of essential support services for people with disabilities. We obtained grant funding for a 2-year project called the Plymouth Autism Hub: a safe space for adults with autism to come together and socialise once a week. We worked together in partnership with those using our service; to support, enable and empower people to forge their own destinies and live their own lives. It was the only support service of its kind within the larger Plymouth area, and it was very successful.

The local authority were very supportive and we worked together to try to transition the project into the authority as an operational service. In the end, however, there was plenty of genuine goodwill but no budget. Our beneficiaries are not able to pay for such a service, so all we could do was deliver a grant-funded time-limited project – and then take it away…

So bear in mind that being a social entrepreneur can be a hard, if personally rewarding, road to follow. Like my own, many social enterprises aim to fill gaps in service provision. But it is difficult to sell a service that people expect to get for free.

As a social entrepreneur, you have to be optimistic, driven and innovative, but you also have to be resilient. Sometimes, all you have left to keep you going is a passion for social justice, and that may be enough to carry you through.

We all want to do good work

To me, the essence of social enterprise is the idea of “good work”, with the ultimate aim to work wholly, fully and unconditionally for others, and to feel comfortable with this.

That level of commitment brings its own dangers however – the inability to switch off and the risk of becoming totally involved in other people’s lives. You need to protect yourself against this and put strong boundaries in place. You will be no good to your community or your clients if either you or your business are in poor health. You have to learn to live the paradox of all caring professionals: give yourself fully, but only in working time.

These are some of my random reflections. There is no great unified message here for all social entrepreneurs. I just want to give a flavour of the unusual and different challenges we all face, from the inside. Life as a social entrepreneur may feel difficult at times, but we all, in our very different ways, will also experience the exhilaration of knowing that we are making a difference exactly where we want to make it – that is its own reward, and that is worth holding on to.

Enhance Social Enterprise European Regional Development Fund logo

The Heart of the South West Enhance Social Enterprise Programme is receiving funding from the England European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020.