debt, decommissioning, and death — the dark side of social entrepreneurship…

adrian ashton
2 min readDec 20, 2016

As a sector, social enterprise always seems to be talking about upbeat and positive stories — you never really hear about chief execs running off with pension funds, administrators foreclosing the business causing the loss of hundreds of jobs, or things like the government having to bail them out…

And I’ve an idea that that’s because as a sector, there’s a lot of political agenda being acted out, and that’s led to a sense that we can’t talk about failure or difficulty — because that would go against the narrative that the sector is trying to present to the wider world.

But that’s surely a dangerous thing? If we’re not open about the ‘tough stuff” that goes on — the failures, the losses, the pain, then how can we hope to develop a generation of social entrepreneurs who are truly realistic about the marketplaces that they’re leading their ventures into, and what may be asked of them personally if they’re to be able to make a success of it all?

There are signs of hope though — the rise of “FuckUp nights”, a model of support to help entrepreneurs recover from failure, that we’ve imported from our American cousins. And I was also greatly encouraged from recently being able to participate in part of a 12 month national programme of support for social entrepreneurs: all the ventures being supported through the programme meet together once a month and the first thing they do is share what they’ve been struggling with — not as a ploy to gain faux sympathies, but as a powerful model to build supportive relationships through showing vulnerability, and allowing opportunities for their peers to reciprocate by sharing in turn when they’ve faced similar and how they tried to deal with it.

And the struggles people share aren’t what you might expect based on the messages and stories usually coming out of the sector — it’s a hard shock to some to hear about:

  • how fellow entrepreneurs have found themselves taking on debt that they now can’t repay;
  • how despite the push for us all to pursue public sector contracts, those services we win and deliver are being increasingly decommissioned, leaving ventures with a business model that no longer works and no obvious way to continue the support they’ve been able to offer;
  • and the loneliness of being an entrepreneur when a close family member dies — working the grief and pain that’s felt, while at the same time trying to also keep a fledgling venture running and support its staff and clients…

Social enterprise, like any other form of business, is tough. And we’re surely only setting up future social entrepreneurs to fail if we don’t encourage each other to be more open and honest about how tough it can really be sometimes?

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adrian ashton

freelance supporter of enterprises of all types, in many guises... www.adrianashton.co.uk