Social entrepreneurship: a different lens of merit

2016 has so far proved to be a milestone year for the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE). Last month SSE India opened for business, building on the organisation's already global presence. Having been founded by Michael Young in 1997, SSE now operates in 12 locations across the UK and has schools in Ireland, India, Canada and Australia. 

CEO Alastair Wilson goes back to the organisation’s roots, explaining the links between social entrepreneurship, democracy and meritocracy. 

In 1958 Michael Young published The Rise of the Meritocracy to warn that a society which gave money and power to those with “merit” would be as harshly divided as one divided by class. Written as a satire, the book is a look back from 2034, from the perspective of a meritocrat, who is killed at the end. Many miss the satire. 

Michael feared that “meritocracy” would lead to increasing inequality of outcomes, particularly of power and income. He believed that the elite in a meritocracy could be harsh; as those at the top feel that they are there by right. Today the meritocrats (with the money and the power) often prefer to support meritocratic social entrepreneurs. The poor, by definition, have few assets and can struggle to get a seat at the table.  

Meritocracy expects unremitting capability, but it’s hard to learn if we can’t own our ignorance.

But Michael saw social entrepreneurship as a way to solve social problems precisely because it gives power to those with the problem. Those who have merit when it comes to offering solutions for tractable problems are exactly those who in many spheres and sectors of life are deemed without merit. Who has the authentic understanding of poverty, single-parenthood, drug addiction, long-term unemployment, or crime? Problems like these require a deep emotional and social understanding. As social entrepreneurs, we should measure merit in the form of lived experience. Better solutions often come from those who have the trust and vested interest of the community than the educated outsider or do-gooder.

Social entrepreneurs flourish with active independent support from the right people – their peers and other practitioners – in cohorts, allowing skill development over time. Social entrepreneurs must learn how to be aware of what we do not know, to admit what we do not know, and build diverse and enduring networks. Meritocracy expects unremitting capability, but it’s hard to learn if we can’t own our ignorance.

Much can be done to cultivate leadership in poor communities: to build skills to learn to tackle problems. The School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) operates on the belief that social enterprise can democratise much of Britain, precisely because it can shift power from the elite to the marginalised, and that is why we look at merit through a different lens.

SSE Fellow, Junior Smart provides example of how a power shift can create great social change. After serving a long prison sentence, Junior now leads SOS Gangs Project to help young men caught up in the vortex of gang crime to break away from this lifestyle. He leads a small team of ex-offenders who all have experience of the issues their clients face. The team have worked with over 500 high profile and prolife young offenders, cutting their reoffending rate from 77% to 23%. The team put this success down to the use of specially trained, credible ex-offenders who have effectively ‘walked in the same shoes’ as their clients.