The poor are not the raw material for your salvation

"Heroes are like the human body – the closer you get to them the more flawed, messy and complicated they are... I hope you will win lots of awards, Jude. But just be clear about your motivations."

Liam Black has a solemn warning for those who let ego and exclusivity cloud their social – and business – judgement.

Dear Jude –

The great and the good of social entrepreneurship gather in Oxford this month for the annual Skoll love in. Heathrow arrivals teems with inspiring people from all over the world lucky enough to get an invite only ticket. Bright shiny Harvard graduates pluck their luggage from the carousel alongside grizzled old veterans from Africa and Asia and impact investors from California with great teeth.

Seminars will be run, panels will be convened, invite only dinners will run late into the night in ancient college banqueting halls and much gossip (and some bodily fluids) will be exchanged in bars and hotels across the city of dreaming spires.

The social enterprise awards culture has been fascinating to watch develop over the years. I picked up the very first Social Enterprise of the Year Award in the UK (when the prize was a bag of crisps, a quizzical, lukewarm round of applause and you didn’t even get your train fare paid). With the arrival of the Skoll and Schwab big bucks, those who are elevated to the ranks of fellows receive substantial cash – and a world of C-suite access and connectivity opens up.

The social entrepreneur PR industry grows all the time and is hungry for content and personalities. This is dangerous and results in people being hailed as saviours and game changers when their business models are nowhere near proven – still less the damaging, unintended consequences known and understood. 

The recent collapse of the Create Foundation is a sobering example for you Jude. Multi award winning – a Big Society exemplar no less, lauded by Bullingdon Boy Numero Uno himself – and yet it went down like a house of cards because of flaws in its business strategy which I’m sure Cameron wasn’t briefed about. 

Skoll et al have brought many great things to the sector and their contributions to the developing eco-system are huge. But the creation of a super league of A-List celebrity social entrepreneurs, networking, dining behind the VIP curtain is not without its contradictions and problems.

Certain of those A-Listers are bullshitters and narcissists whose mission is themselves. I have looked behind the scenes of a few of their ventures and the mismatch between rhetoric and reality is stark – as is the misalignment between personal lifestyle and public stance about the poor and oppressed.

Jude, beware of setting anyone up as a hero. Putting someone on a pedestal is one of the worst things you can do to them. Heroes are like the human body – the closer you get to them the more flawed, messy and complicated they are.

Each year the socially entrepreneurial Cirque de Soleil sets up its big tent at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Champagne is sipped whilst corporate CEOs, Russian oligarchs and Arab potentates ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the miracles being performed by the social entrepreneurs. The Occupy movement activisits on the other hand are kept a long distance away and canapés are not put out for them. Their diet is tear gas and police truncheon. 

Power, class – especially class – and entitlement are three subjects nowhere near high enough up the agenda of Skoll and Davos. It is very fashionable at such gatherings to hear mainstream politics trashed as unable to compete with the whizzy, sexy, genius social entrepreneurs. Yawn, party politics. How boring. How last century.

But ask yourself this: without political backing where will your idea get? What has had the biggest impact on well-being in this country in last ten years? Eden Project? Big Issue? Jamie Oliver? Divine Chocolate? Or the government’s decision to ban smoking in all public places?

Politicians are flawed and politics a dirty, compromised game but at least they must submit to democratic elections. Jeff Skoll's big money – like Gates and Omidyar – gives him big influence but to whom is he accountable? A democratic society is committed to the equality of citizen but are foundations the voice of plutocracy? Rob Reich asked this question in a fascinating recent essay.

I hope you will win lots of awards, Jude. But just be clear about your motivations. Why do you do what you do? Doubtless a large dose of bloody-minded, rock solid self-belief is a must have. There may be no “I” in team but perhaps inevitably there is a hell of a lot of “ego” in “social entrepreneur”.

If you’d asked me in my twenties and thirties what my driving motivations were I would have said a strange hybrid of leftie politics and option-for-the-poor Catholicism filtered through the liberation theologians of Latin America and the inner cities.   

No doubt these were important and, my god – what passionate debates there were around all that stuff in the 80s. But looking back I can see clearly that a core part of what drove me was the seeking of approval of an absent father (long story) and a huge enjoyment at the attention which came with being in the vanguard of the UK social enterprise movement. It feels very good to be talked and written about and even better if there are awards and baubles. And yes, of course, I am having my cake and tweeting it by writing this blog.

There is a need for a large dose of skepticism about middle class European and American social entrepreneurs who think they have the answer for the problems of Africa or know what the youth off the housing estates need.

And I am more than skeptical of so-called faith based social enterprises whose motivation is at its core: "I'm doing this becuase Jesus wants me to  and it's how I might achieve redemption." As Helder Camara once said: “The poor are not the raw material for your salvation.”  This should be inscribed over the doorway to the Skoll Centre and at receptions in all social businesses.


Liam Black is co-founder of Wavelength. Contact him via or via Twitter