Many of us start our social ventures without any previous experience of running an organisation. If, like me, you start your first social venture in your early 20s, you might not have much previous experience of doing anything.
The big temptation in that situation is to think that there’s a right way to do what you’re trying to do and that, as someone who doesn’t know what you’re doing, you need to find an expert who’ll be able to tell you what that right way is.
So, the theory goes, having decided to launch our innovative scheme to tackle youth unemployment through a disruptive combination of skateboarding and environmental action , we need to find a consultant or a lawyer to tell us which sort of organisational structure we need to take it forward.
There’s no shortage of expertise on offer:
• Expert one says the best approach is to register as a charity so that we can get gift aid on donations from members of the public who support environmental causes and apply for grants from trusts who only fund registered charities;
• Expert two says that it’s better to be a Community Interest Company because the governance is less complicated than with a charity and it’s easier to develop new products and services – using skateboarding to tackle a wider range of social challenges – without changing our constitution
• Expert three says we’d be better off with a structure that will enable us to sell shares to social investors who are desperate to invest innovative social ventures with clear disruptive potential
All three experts are correct. It’s a situation that reminds of a chemistry teacher at my secondary school, Mr Allman, and his attempts to persuade reluctant students to answer his questions by (repeatedly) making the point that ‘the worst you can be is wrong’.
Though well intentioned, Mr Allman had clearly misunderstood the risk/reward ratio most students would use to consider the deal he was offering. If we chose to offer an answer to his query ‘so, what do you think will happen when I drop the potassium into the acid?’, we could either make ourselves look like idiots by getting the answer wrong, or make ourselves look like people who were interested in chemistry by getting the answer right.
Mr Allman’s theory fell down in the context of a chemistry lesson because there was a right answer (and many wrong answers) to his questions and there was no drawback, from a student’s point of view, to saying nothing and letting the expert answer the question.
‘The worst you can be is wrong’ works much better as advice for social entrepreneurs. While there are some situations – particularly those that involve laws about governance or protecting vulnerable people – where the only decision you need to take is to find out your responsibilities are and fulfil them, most of the important questions about your social venture can only be answered by you, based on what you want to do.
Should we start by looking for a small grant to test whether our innovative scheme to tackle youth unemployment through a disruptive combination of skateboarding and environmental action works, or should we start by running an entirely unfunded one-off event to see if anyone’s interested?
Should we begin by offering opportunities to unemployed young people in our immediate local area or focus on supporting young people from a wider geographical area who have a particular interest in skateboarding and/or environmental action?
The point is not that consultants, lawyers or other experts are wrong, stupid or out to trick you. Some are but most aren’t. And the point is definitely not that you should avoid or ignore advice from mentors or other people with experience in doing what you’re doing. The opposite is true.
People with specialist knowledge and people with experience are a vital resource to draw on in making key decisions about how you set-up and run your social venture but they can’t (usefully) take those decisions for you.
Not everyone likes taking decisions but, if you’re strongly averse to taking decisions, you’ll hopefully have avoided taking the decision to start your own social venture in the first place.
If you have taken the decision to do something, there’s no getting away from making choices about what you do and how you do it. Having made your decisions you get to take the credit when they pay off and take the blame when they go wrong or, in situations when you take no decision at all, you take the blame for the fact that nothing happened at all or something bad carried on happening.