Faking trust to tackle social and environmental issues

As big business gets increasingly interested in the social enterprise sphere do those in the sector need to fake it until they make it when it comes to trust?

For those who have been involved in the social enterprise and impact investing sphere for a number of years, the phrase ‘tipping points’ may cease to excite. However looking around at the delegates of Critical Mass it is clear a shift has taken place.

Attendees have travelled from over 32 countries including Ghana and Japan, venturing out of offices which work in the public, corporate and charity sector, as well as in social enterprise and investment directly. At a plenary session hosted by the global head of social enterprise at the British Council Dr Mairi Mackay, this shift was addressed, raising the issue of trust. 

Former president of the Social Enterprise Alliance in the US Kevin Lynch reflected on his career in social enterprise: “Back in the day I don’t think trust was that important in our work. It was really easy for the do gooders on one side to look at big business and systems and say ‘you’re wrecking the world’ and we here in the impact space are here to correct that. 

“Now that has completely changed and I should be thrilled at who is in the room these days – big business, small business, big capital, small capital, non-profits and for profits. For us to do this work it requires these strange bedfellows to develop a trust that we haven’t had before.

“I’ve spent years railing about economic justice and I’ve always had this villain as the privileged economy that favours holders of money over those non-holders of capital. For many years I mistook the system for the people… it is the system that needs to be addressed rather than me lacking trust in humanity and integrity of people within that system.” 

Debates over social enterprise definitions and the preserving of principles become increasingly relevant as more players want a piece of the action. And it is of course necessary that these debates happen – and that ethics and principles are constantly questioned. However, it is also undeniable that the societal influence and sheer financial might of the traditional corporate sector and government have the potential to accelerate the development and thus impact of social enterprises and ventures. 

Lynch continued: “In part of my life I go to meetings at a fellowship called Alcoholics Anonymous and one of the first things they tell people when they walk into these meetings is fake it until you make it - assume best intention. 

“As I think about the opportunity that comes with everybody in this room, the capacity for change and impact that could come from collaboration, my personal struggle is to get over this distrust and think about how to change systems and to fake it until I make it in terms of trust.”

If we integrate social and environmental issues into the way we allocate resources and capital, we will make societies in the long term more successful.

Joining Lynch on the panel was CEO of the British Council Sir Ciarán Devane who reflected on what social enterprises can learn from other industries in terms of tipping points, including the ability to convene effectively.  

If you look at Silicon Valley in the States and ask why such a sudden acceleration in tech innovation has occurred there, “it is because that’s where everybody was meeting, having the conversations, sharing ideas and challenging each other” Devane said.

“As a community of social enterprises we don’t have one place or town where we do that, but we have to find a way of doing it in a virtual way. If we can share those insights, have these conversations and demonstrate the impact we have then we begin to create the conditions that allow a tipping point to take place,” he concluded.

While nobody on the panel contested the fact that more dialogue would lead to greater change, CEO of ACRA Elena Casolari argued that there were still crucial individuals missing from the social enterprise dialogue. “We don’t talk to the very young people. All the classes in social entrepreneurship are at the executive level or the university level. 

“We don’t include many young people in the age group between 12 and 20 years old. I believe that it is at this age when young people set out their priorities, develop their ideas around key issues and really start to dream big,” she said. 

Building on this point around dialogue, founder of Swechha Vimlendu Jha urged for a greater understanding that social enterprise landscapes differ greatly depending on the geographic context in which they are based. He also argued against the idea of standardising social impact in order to make it fit in frameworks. 

In order for social enterprises in countries around the world to reach a tipping point, there needs to be an alignment between the wills of government, corporates and citizens he told delegates. “Government might want to change something but there might not be a matching desire from corporates or citizens...There will be occasions where the citizens are very frustrated. 

“Best case scenarios are when the two come together and there is a match between the political will for a socially, economically and environmentally responsible ecosystem, and that demand comes not just from one sector but from everybody,” he concluded. This 'will' was also touched upon by panellist Michael Green, co-creator of the Social Progess Index.

He said that in order for a tipping point to take place there needs to be an understanding that "if we integrate social and environmental issues into the way we allocate resources and capital, we will make societies in the long term more successful". 

As discussions and debates around social enterprise structures and impact investment mechanisms become increasingly nuanced, the themes of trust and collaboration remain an integral part of discussion.  


Photo credit: Matthew Herring, Matter&Co