The Social Entrepreneur by Andrew Mawson

In 1984, Andrew Mawson, a minister in the United Reformed Church in the UK, arrived in the parish of Bromley-by-Bow, located in the impoverished Lower Lea Valley in the East End of London.  He was greeted by twelve elderly parishioners, a collection of shabby, run-down church buildings, and a congregational bank account in credit to the modest tune of ₤400.  In 2010, the now-renamed Bromley-by-Bow Centre stands in 3 acres of reclaimed, landscaped parkland, employs over 140 staff, houses an integrated health care centre, a “communiversity” with over 700 students, and a business centre that works co-operatively with over 20 social enterprises spread across the embattled Tower Hamlets estates.  Mawson himself now holds a life peerage in the House of Lords, sitting on the cross benches of that august institution; and though he didn’t know it at the time, he was a member of the founding generation of the “social entrepreneur” movement.  The Social Entrepreneur: Making Communities Work (London: Atlantic Books, 2008) is his manifesto for what social entrepreneurship looks like, how it best works, and the social and governmental conditions necessary for it to flourish.

From the outset, Mawson warns his readers that his book is a polemic which not only advocates for his approach, but also takes aim at the “liberal consensus” which he feels has failed the people who live in supposedly “intractable” areas of poverty and social exclusion.  Unsurprisingly, Mawson spends much of the book directing invective at the “liberals”, academics, bureaucrats, and politicians whom he regards, at best, as well-intentioned but hopelessly out of touch; or, at worst, as a dead hand stifling the innovation necessary for individuals and communities to explore pathways out of poverty.  Instead of endless policy pronouncements that go nowhere, social studies that produce no change, or programs that waste funding through public sector inefficiency and mismanagement, Mawson believes government should back those individuals and groups willing to take calculated risks, who produce a track record of tangible results underlined by responsibility and accountability for outcomes, and who place relationships and the practical application of business principles ahead of structures and theory.

If this sounds like neo-con rhetoric, the reader can be assured that Mawson takes aim at all sides of politics for their failure to recognise the potential that resides in supposedly “failed” communities.  He writes:

Both New Labour and the Conservative Party seem quite confused about this whole area.  Few have understood that fairness actually demands that you back success: you put your trust in people who can demonstrate to you that they can get results.  You back experience, you get behind those individuals and teams who over many years have come to understand the detail of their subject and are now capable of delivering results – something business has long understood. (p.61-2)

Apart from Mawson’s questionable understanding of the world of business as a meritocracy, his point is simple: fairness and equity are not matters of everyone being given an equal slice of the governmental funding pie.  Rather, justice demands that resources and opportunities be provided to those individuals and organisations capable of delivering the goods through the building of relationships and strategic alliances on the ground in local communities.  Such organisations and the individuals behind them are neither “democratic” in the anodyne sense of being “representative” or allowing everyone to “have their say” (a trend Mawson believes leads to debilitating factionalism); neither are they ideology- or process-driven service providers dolling out welfare to apathetic and dependent recipients.  Rather, though the building of relationships in local communities, they seek to identify innovative and energetic individuals, provide them with the means to establish sustainable social enterprises operated by committed and capable teams, and through such activity and the results they achieve develop further networks of relationship and opportunity.

Mawson argues that what sets the social entrepreneur apart from their commercial counterpart or their bureaucratic interlocutors in government and the public service is an emphasis on people, not profits or process.  The social entrepreneur seeks to take calculated risks based on a rich mixture of innovative thinking and careful planning, rather than manage risk through organisational structure or procedural process.  Whereas, in business and government, forming relationships might mean generating cartels or excluding rivals, Mawson argues that social entrepreneurship is dedicated to the liberation and empowerment of individuals and communities by broadening previously limited horizons and giving people a sense of the possible.  Only by challenging assumptions and daring people to think in unconventional ways can dysfunctional communities be converted into seedbeds of innovation and creativity.  For Mawson, the key to this conversion is not top-down governmental process directed by macro-policy agendas or the “liberal consensus” of the public sector; rather, it is individuals and groups, operating at the local level and applying business principles to social issues.

But what, exactly, are these business principles? Mawson is somewhat obtuse on this point, but over the course of his book, the reader slowly gleans the understanding that what Mawson means by “business principles” are:  having clear objectives; ensuring all parties understand their responsibilities; developing realistic plans; being accountable; and approaching potential backers with concrete illustrations of expected final results, not vague hopes or promises.  Leaving aside the question of whether or not such principles are necessarily part and parcel of the business world or just a matter of common sense, the point that Mawson is making is that social enterprise simply doesn’t occur in a vacuum, nor is its success predicated either on good intentions or someone having a good idea.  Rather, the social entrepreneur and their partners have to be prepared to do the hard work of getting to grips with the details in order to understand the social dynamics of their environment and how to offer services that, instead of imposing “solutions” on people, enables individuals and communities to exercise their own initiative.

However, Mawson argues that this entrepreneurial approach is at odds with the paradigm within which government and the public sector operate: the short political cycle, the demand for immediate results, the obsession with minimising risk and avoiding blame, the unwillingness to take hard decisions that might lead to accusations of “unfairness” or partiality.  And, for Mawson, the evidence of this failure exists in the inevitably disastrous results that follow once government involves itself in the social enterprise process:

I am reminded of the housing association movement that started to blossom in the sixties.  This movement began in an entrepreneurial way and produced many excellent practical examples of innovation in social housing.  These small and very special housing associations, one of which I was Secretary of for a time, produced some quality buildings and paid the necessary attention to detail which real innovation demands.  But when government got involved and created the Housing Corporation, bringing in a civil-service culture to adjudicate on matters, these smaller shoots were suffocated with bureaucracy, audit trails and government structures.  Now the situation truly was equal: equally mediocre.  (p.156-7)

In other words, what is required to change this parlous state of affairs is a paradigm shift in the thinking that typifies the governmental and civil service approach – a change which Mawson doesn’t hold out much hope of happening.  Nonetheless, Mawson doesn’t hesitate to give his prescription:

(Government’s) role is to create the conditions for change –  to create a marketplace for social and business entrepreneurs that encourages them to work together and interact.  In order to achieve this, they must open up the public sector in far more radical ways than they have as yet attempted.  They must remove the public sector from its privileged position, get rid of the merry-go-round of local authority officers shifting from job to job within the authority, and brin in new blood, people who have cut their teeth on entrepreneurial environments.  Change is all about having the right people in the right places – forget about endless restructuring and new processes…Delivering genuine transformation is a risky business and all governments struggle with it.  However, unless governments take the long view, and withdraw and provide genuine space for social entrepreneurs to operate – and, yes, at times, fail – real change will never happen.  (159-60, parenthesis added)

Mawson’s faith in this “small government, get-out-of-the-way-of-business” model might be questionable were it not for the undeniable success of his own venture with the Bromley-by-Bow Centre.  And yet Mawson’s apparent insistence that this is the only viable approach is certainly contestable; not from any desire to be “fair” to any possible alternatives (Mawson is certainly correct in arguing that unthinking notions of “equity” are destructive to innovation), but because Mawson’s own belief in creativity and diversity necessitates a multiplicity of models and environments.  Indeed, for someone who persistently bemoans the captivity of government and the public sector to ideology, Mawson’s insistence on the validity of his own theoretical framework is striking.  Of course, Mawson would argue that same framework is based on solid experience and a proven record of success; but as his own exploration of the repeated failure to “scale up” the social enterprise model from the local to the national demonstrates, there simply isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution to the problem of social exclusion.

The Social Entrepreneur is challenging and confronting reading.  For Christians and Churches, it poses difficult questions about the nature of “mission”, especially in light of Mawson’s own rejection of  “theological theories” (p.145) of human existence (a rejection that itself poses significant questions about how Mawson understands his own identity as a Christian and a minister within the context of his activity as a social entrepreneur).  Nonetheless, Mawson’s message is clear: if Christian churches are to have any future, their members have to understand “mission” not as a process by which they convince people to come to Church on Sundays, but as a mechanism for building relationships and alliances that connects what they have to offer as a community into the wider social framework.  Only through innovative thinking, careful planning, and paying attention to detail can Churches hope to build relationships that deliver real social change and ensure congregational viability into the future.

Moreover, this challenge also extends to Church bureaucracies and funding bodies: they must look at the way in which they have been funding different Church activities, and instead of being focused on procedural fairness or “equity”, or keeping alive struggling programs, must instead identify those innovative individuals and projects that have been building relationships and generating real change.    And there must be real accountability also: those projects and individuals who demonstrate their incapacity to create and sustain meaningful enterprises must have their funding withdrawn in favour of those who can produce demonstrable results.    If the Church is to have a viable social mission into the future, it must be based on accountability, the delivery of real results, and the sustainable use of resources; merely “holding the fort” or replicating present models will no longer suffice.

The Social Entrepreneur will leave the reader with uneasy feelings and certain reservations regarding Mawson’s framework of operation; but it will also suggest new and engaging possibilities for congregational life and missional activity.  Even if one doesn’t agree with Mawson on every point, nonetheless, the opportunity for new horizons and opportunities is imprinted into every page of this book.  And in the end, that could be its most valuable characteristic: thought-provoking and challenging, it might just have the effect of changing the way both individuals and communities think.

(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.