Social Enterprise Mistakes: Worrying That Someone Will Steal Your Idea

| 4 responses | Posted by: David Floyd | Theme: Social Innovation & Investment

When meeting social entrepreneurs, and others running small voluntary organisations that are developing new projects, I come across a sizable minority who are reluctant to tell people about what they’re trying to do because they’re worried that someone will steal their idea and do the project themselves.

via Flickr user loop_oh ORIGINALThis is not an irrational fear. In any situation where someone has a good idea, it’s ultimately quite likely that someone will copy it. The mistake is to fail to realise that – unless you’re developing a patentable technological innovation – the dangers of telling people about your idea will usually be far smaller than the dangers of not telling people about your idea.

If, for example, you’re a small social venture with an idea for tackling youth unemployment through an innovative scheme that combines skateboarding and environmental action, you would (probably) have succeeded in coming up with a new approach that isn’t currently being delivered by anyone else.

At the point you have the idea, that concept in itself has no commercial value whatsoever. By not telling people about it, the main thing you’re protecting yourself against is someone taking your basic idea and implementing it more successfully than you. They might very well do it. But if you’re developing an approach to tackling a social problem – rather than a patentable technological innovation or a branded product – there’s nothing you can usefully do to stop them.

So if, at the ideas stage, you go to your local council or a large charity tackling youth unemployment, and ask them for help with your project, it’s possible that the person you meet will politely wait for you to leave before smacking themselves on the forehead, shouting ‘I can’t believe I didn’t think of that one before!’ and setting straight to work on developing their own in-house environmental skateboarding scheme. Possible: but not very likely.

What’s far more likely is that they’ll politely wait for you to leave before having no further thoughts about, or interest in, you or your idea at all. On the other hand, there’s also a chance that inspired by your combination of passion and unorthodox thinking, and desperate for any new suggestions about how to tackle youth unemployment , they might offer you some practical support to help you try out your idea.

If you’re developing a new approach to tackling a social problem, the point where competitors – whether they’re other social entrepreneurs, large charities, public sector bodies or private sector companies – are most likely to steal your idea is when you’ve either proved that it works or that there’s a good chance that it will work.

If you succeed: (a) in getting some funding to run an environmental skateboarding pilot project (b) in persuading the job centre and other local agencies to refer people to it and (c) proving that the combination of skateboarding and environmental action does in some way enable young people to find work, then it’s quite likely that larger organisations may become more interested in the idea.

It’s also possible that these organisations – rather than paying you to deliver your project on an ongoing basis – might choose to copy what you’ve done without involving you. The business challenge for you is to demonstrate why your project, run by you, based on your knowledge, skills and experience, is more likely to be successful than your project run by them.

However well you make your case, other people might still choose to copy you badly rather than work with you. The challenge for you is to either get on with it yourself or find partners who do recognise the value you provide.

The danger is that we, as social entrepreneurs, let the painful question of whether someone might steal something get in the way of making practical judgments about the commercial situation. They say genius is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. For all the brilliance of your idea, it’s the effort you put into its execution that really matters.


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4 Responses

  1. Jeff Mowatt

    Well it certainly happened to us. We spent 6 years developing strategy plan for microeconomic development and social enterprise which included a national social enterprise development centre for Ukraine. We introduced to others through intiatives like the EU Citizens Consultation, The Erste Bank social business ideas competition, The British Council’s solicitation for social enterprise partners and USAID through application for a grant initiative for community organisations. To Virgin Unite in response to their invitation for project ideas. We even published the entire proposal in 2007, as a web magazine article to defend our IP.

    We have no objection to being copied, it was our aim for others to replicate the model. That’s not the same thing as doing it in the same location and refusing to allow partnership.

  2. Nicola Wilson

    Fabulous post! I have to admit I can be a little protective of some ideas myself… I’m learning to share! (For the record, I know nothing about skateboarding or its environmental inspiration potential, but it may have legs…) I think confidence that it’s a good idea can also be a barrier to sharing – I can’t be alone in thinking this way? I always admire those who have the courage of their convictions in taking their ideas to the next level which is why I’m inspired by many social entrepreneurs.

  3. Peter Burgess

    I can relate to this article. I have been developing the architecture for multi dimension impact accounting for a long time and would like to see it become an open knowledge open software system. The people that invest in tech development, however, want to see something proprietary with NDAs and all the rest. So there is something of an impasse.

    I have concluded that the open knowledge open software strategy is the one to use. My decision had much of the elements described in the article

    Peter Burgess – TrueValueMetrics
    Multi Dimension Impact Accounting

  4. Matthew Cain

    I’d go further. If you’ve got an idea that other people don’t want to copy, you’ve got a problem. The biggest isn’t usually the first. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Facebook not the first social network, Tesco not the first supermarket.

    If you’re part of a thriving ecosystem of providers they will be making it easier for you to sell the need for the service, helping you focus on the USP.