Why We Need More Support for Social Entrepreneurs and Activists to Bring About a Better Future

Mark Swift, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Wellbeing Enterprises CIC

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. Margaret Mead

In this blog I outline why it is important to expand and grow the variety of support available for social entrepreneurs and activists. By doing so we can then cultivate the ‘energy for change’ in communities and build the scale and capacity that is necessary for societal transformation to happen. Our future is being shaped by our actions in the moments that are unfolding right now. We ought to assist and support those who are willing to embody through their actions, the change they want to see in the world. It is no longer an option to delegate to others responsibility for society's seemingly intractable problems; this does not work. Everyone will have to play their part and it will require nothing less than a social movement to overcome the inertia of political systems around the world.

In every town and village throughout the world, people are taking action on a scale never witnessed before; by campaigning, joining support groups and creating or working for social businesses or charities. In the future we will all be activated for social change, and so we will need to expand the provision of support to ensure full participation. We also need to understand what kinds of support needs exist and to do this effectively we must listen to the stories of those who are already taking action so we can learn what good support looks like from their perspectives. This might include practical assistance - to get a community group or social business off the ground or it might include emotional support - for example having access to networks of peers or professionals to talk over challenges. This is something I have been thinking more deeply about while reflecting on my personal journey.

For 15 years I’ve lived and worked as a social entrepreneur in the Liverpool City Region. Prior to this, I worked in public health on behalf of the NHS where I developed a deeper appreciation of how the social determinants shape the way we think, feel and behave. It was during this time that I also became aware of how social action approaches can assist communities in building support structures and solidarity in response to growing levels of adversity. Recognising I could do more, I set up Wellbeing Enterprises with a group of passionate people, as a vehicle to mobilise the community’s strengths in order to promote and protect the wellbeing of citizens. Over the years, I have observed how the power of people and collective action can counter adversity and make peoples’ lives better. Wellbeing Enterprises is a manifestation of our unwavering belief in ‘people power’ and in solidarity, and to date it has assisted approximately 30,000 people.

I’ve contributed to policy discussions and research investigating social action approaches. It’s fair to say that I am fascinated by social entrepreneurs and activists and the ways they set about creating social change; especially when considering all the obstacles that often hinder the change-making process. I understand on a personal level the challenges and the sacrifices that social entrepreneurs and activists often have to make, and I’ve reflected on the practical and emotional support that has been invaluable on my journey and what was absent and would have likely made a difference. I believe there’s much more we can do to support social entrepreneurs and activists at various stages of their social action journeys. This is now a pressing need as data from Social Enterprise UK indicates that there are now three times as many social businesses registering in the UK than SMEs*.

Over the years I have met with many seemingly ordinary people who have, for one reason or another, felt compelled to take action with others to make their small corner of the world a better place. It is through their actions that they have become extra-ordinary people. They are an inspiration and a source of personal strength, as they are a reminder of the countless people all across the globe who are united around a shared objective: to make the world better. It gives me an incredible sense of hope and optimism for the future. In 2018 I was honoured to accept an Ashoka Fellowship on behalf of all the citizens, staff and wider stakeholders who have supported Wellbeing Enterprises over the years, and for whom I owe a personal debt of gratitude. These extraordinary people and organisations have supported me in so many ways - personally, professionally and spiritually. Without this support I suspect I would have come unstuck.

So how then can we build effective support provision for social entrepreneurs and activists in local communities? I believe anchor institutions like local authorities, housing trusts and NHS organisations have a key role to play. My recommendations include:

  • Map the social action activity that is already underway in communities; recognise this as a rich community asset that can be harnessed to support social change locally
  • Invest in support programmes that provide practical and psycho-social support to address their identified needs. Creating a social business or community action project is labour intensive and psychologically challenging; those willing to embody social change through their actions should be supported at every stage of their social action journey; from start up to scale up
  • Provide seed funding for grassroots activists and social entrepreneurs to get their ideas for social change off the ground. Create a social innovation culture across sectors and within communities
  • Create interfaces for social entrepreneurs and activists to engage with citizens and public sector professionals to share ideas, practical wisdom and to co-design and co-deliver new innovations. Examples might include Social Innovation Networks or incubator spaces to facilitate knowledge exchange and to allow for ideas to be tested and refined in a collaborative and supportive way

By bolstering the availability and variety of support on offer for social entrepreneurs and activists, we will be able to expand these efforts to bring about social change. The world is at a critical juncture - staring down the barrel of economic, social and environmental upheaval of unprecedented magnitude. I believe that we will all become activated for social change at some point in life and having access to the right support at the right time will help society to harness this energy effectively.

*Guardian. (2019) Guardian website [online] [Accessed 13 August 2019] from: https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2018/mar/12/social-enterprises-go-bust-all-the-time-how-the-sector-is-tackling-its-image-problem