Here’s one I tried earlier

January 30, 2013 by
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Here’s an issue which has cropped up time and again in conversations about social innovation: Those who give small and medium sized grants to social enterprises trying to move beyond the start-up phase face a conundrum. On the one hand, they want to fund the best ideas with the best chance of achieving impact. On the other hand, social start-ups often don’t have the capacity and skills to make the strongest, most evidence based, case for their work. In particular, it is unusual to find applicants who have thoroughly answered these simple but tough questions: ‘what other initiatives are very similar to yours?’, and ‘why is yours positively different?’

I suspect there is a psychological dimension. A few years ago someone ‘phoned to ask me if the RSA would support a new project in schools to promote entrepreneurship. When I gently pointed out that there are already several national and local initiatives of this sort which he should check out before refining his own thoughts, not only didn’t he thank me for the advice but he clearly felt slighted.

When we have an idea or a passion we tend to want to think it is unique to us, that we are truly radical innovators who are bound to succeed simply because of the strength of our intuition and commitment. No one likes to have that enthusiasm dampened by the knowledge many other people have walked this road before and many have lost their way. And – in case you’re wondering – I am just as guilty. When I had my idea yesterday of a national care experience for young people my first reaction was to hope no one else had thought of it or done before.

It should also be said there is a converse problem of people taking an idea to an existing organisation and being met with a ‘not invented here’ or ‘we tried that twenty years ago and it failed’ defensiveness.

An example of an area in which I hear of new initiatives almost daily and in which it is vital to survey a crowded scene of similar ideas is mentoring.  Last week the Sutton Trust becomes the latest organisation to present conclusions from meta–analysis of educational practice (that is analysis of many research projects around the same topics). One conclusion was that ‘poor mentoring is worse than no mentoring at all’. This reflects not just of the quality of individual schemes and mentors but also the conceptual foundations of mentoring. Often the motivation for establishing schemes is the assumption that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer from low aspirations and therefore need the guidance and encouragement of a high achiever.

However, as powerful research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown, the story of low aspiration – despite being ubiquitous in political speeches and newspaper columns – is a myth. The problem for the disadvantaged, whether pupils, parents or the wider community, is not low aspirations but low expectations and limited resources to change those expectations. Young people don’t need to be insured they need concrete advice and support to enable them to climb the stubbornly wide gaps between the rungs of the progression ladder.

From all this I conclude that what we need is a social enterprise concept triage process. Through this people with new ideas or fledgling schemes, but lacking the time, skills, resources, or psychological resilience properly to survey the scene of similar initiatives and their evaluation, could get a short, focussed but robust research report that can inform, guide maybe even sometimes inspire. Funders might quickly ask for such reports to be appended to funding applications.

The consequence? Some dreams would be shattered, some hopes extinguished but also a whole heap of blood, sweat and tears would be avoided and funders would be able to choose from a smaller but better field of applications. The process might itself be a social enterprise, charging just enough to provide the service and using social science students who would have the skills and could use the money for a job they could do flexibly.

I just hope I’m the first to come up with this great idea. But if you have already heard about someone doing something similar, to be honest, I really don’t want to know.



  • Robert Burns


    anyone lacking:

    (a) the time;

    (b) resources;

    (c) skills; and

    (d) psychological resilience;

    is, by definition, unfit to receive the kind of funding you are talking about.

    The absence of any of the items listed above would be fatal to any operation and no amount of “professional” report writing would change that.

    What would emerge is a bureaucratic process by which to scam funders that would soon fall into disrepute.

    In fact, you are proposing something that would be structurally similar to the mortgage and loan agency businesses that allowed so many sub-prime borrowers to get credit they should not have had.

    Well, we all know how that worked out.

  • Carl Allen

    Much of the progress on intractable issues consists of radical change and/or tailored repetitions of what works.

    One requires rethinking of how resources are used and the other requires more resources.

  • Jenny

    We don’t expect commercial start-ups to shut themselves down if there is someone offering a similar product. If they’re seeking investment, we do expect them to have a done a bit of competitor research of course. But if they can convince investors that their product is better and/or cheaper, or more appealingto consumers, then they may well get backing.

    Surely we should expect social innovators, all of whom are looking at the same problems, to occasionally come up with the same ideas. After the initial conception they are unlikely to develop in the same way. The crucial difference is that one is likely to be more effective/popular/cost-efficient than others. This one needs to be identified and scaled, and the less good models not kept limping along by funders who don’t ask hard questions about impact.

  • Robert Burns


    there are a number of serious defects with Matthew’s proposal, let’s go through them:

    (a) innovation is the realm of the contested: ‘expert opinion’ and ‘research’ are predominantly retrospective and can be made to uphold any argument.

    If it had been left to IBM and Apple, personal computers would still only be available to large institutions and well heeled professionals.

    Contemporary expert opinion in the computing industry didn’t see Microsoft coming.

    (b) the funding application process is a process of competitive examination/application.

    Having someone else prepare your application is a first cousin to cheating in this context because it will imply the possession of knowledge and know-how that the nominal applicant may not have.

    (c) the proposal would homogenize funding applications and make it difficult to impossible for funding organizations to weed out ‘sheep’ from ‘goats’.

    Every funding application could end up appearing equally valid and deserving, far from weeding out ‘bad’ applications the system would be log jammed.

    (d) once the system fell into disrepute funding organizations would ‘solve’ the problems created by (b) and (c) by only considering applications from organizations with a proven record of achievement.

    This, by definition, would exclude the majority of innovators from funding.

  • Tessy Britton

    Great idea Matthew! Not just as ‘competitive info’ but it could help people with similar aspirations, working in what is becoming a very fragmented landscape, to collaborate and help each other to achieve more.

  • Robert Burns


    this idea is a comprehensive non-starter for many reasons (including those I have outlined).

    It is one of those ideas that sound great in theory and if we lived a different world it might work.

    But we don’t live in that other world.

    Has anybody sounded out the funding bodies on this issue?

    What we have here is a proposal similar to the scheme to break the monopoly held by solicitors on property conveyancing.

    The property buying public were sold a description of it that they liked.

    The Estate Agents liked the idea.

    Government liked the idea.

    But no one bothered to ask mortgage lenders or solicitors what they thought of the idea.


    The mortgage lenders refused to release funds unless the conveyancing was done by a solicitor on their ‘approved’ list.

    Solicitors opened estate agency subsidiaries and drove many Estate Agents out of business with ‘competitive’ joint selling/conveyancing service prices.

    Bottom line:

    Solicitors maintained their monopoly on conveyancing services and extended their profit making.

    This proposal by Matthew would spawn a similarly perverse outcome.

    Back to the drawing board Matthew.

  • Tessy Britton

    Thanks Robert – Great comparison example (which still baffles me) and I take your points, but not sure your comparison transfers so directly to the social sector.

    Certainly from my own experience, I would suggest that for the many people I know in the social sector who measure their own effectiveness on their work’s social impact, rather than money, having a research database of current work and ideas in development would save a great deal of time.

    Matthew – think it would be a great resource to RSA Fellows and others who already spend too much time chasing funding – also too much reinvention and duplication of similar ideas and effort around at the moment. Including some of my own no doubt – but how would I know??

  • Robert Burns


    I understand your enthusiasm and that’s a good thing.

    But we live a world where perverse outcomes are the norm – or, at least, they seem perverse to those who bought into the original pitch.

    In the long run nothing good can come of allowing the emergence of middlemen between funding bodies and those who wish to obtain funding.

    Yes, working through ‘expert’ middlemen and the ‘database’ you’ve postulated might save time – but at a price.

    That price will be the development of a level of ‘certainty’ around issues that will smother innovation.

    The story of human progress is the story of people breaking rules and defying orthodoxy – creativity can’t be planned and it can’t be constrained and directed by retrospective “expert opinion” and “evidence”.

    MT’s use of the word “triage” is particularly telling.

    The people who would provide this “triage” service would end up indirectly running the “social sector” according to what suits their best interests.

    We see this everywhere, it is one of the cancers that is eating our society from within.

  • Louis M M Coiffait

    Have you seen this?
    Potentially relevant to this post and the earlier research brokering idea…

  • David Wilcox

    I’m with Tessy – and maybe Robert – if Matthew would bear with tweaking the idea a bit.
    Over the past year I’ve done a number of open explorations for funders who are looking to invest in projects and want to identify where to focus.
    In each case we found lots of exciting projects, some gaps … and little shared knowledge of what other people were doing. This is a problem both for funders and potential social enterprises, as Matthew indicates.
    There is a third problem – that scope for collaboration, and getting more out of what’s already happening, is missed.
    This is something dealt with in the recent NESTA publication on systemic innovation
    Here’s the tweak. Rather than expert “middlemen” doing reports, could we develop better social, collaborative ecosystems within which funders, existing and new enterprises could better spot opportunities?
    Maybe this is idealistic, and we do need something more formal. Either way, RSA is potentially a great testbed.
    We already have lots of staff projects, and Catalyst projects, and Fellows working professionally or as volunteers and social entrepreneurs on projects we don’t know about.
    As a start, let’s have more conversations, and tell more stories about what we are doing, and then look at the mechanisms needed to achieve even more.
    Thanks Matthew for sparking this discussion, which I think is well-worth sharing with Fellows on our other platforms.
    We’ve recently had some rather soul-searching discussions on Linkedin about RSA mission and Fellowship. This idea could be a way to channel some positive contributions both there and on the rsafellowship platform.
    NESTA funded the original far-sighted RSA Networks programme. Maybe time for another pitch to them, or elsewhere? I’m sure together we could crowd-source a good proposition.

  • Jenny

    So Tessy and David – do you really think it’s not defensible for two social entrepreneurs/innovators to both work on/seek funding for a similar idea, even at start-up stage?

  • David Wilcox

    Jenny – of course competition is a good thing, and funders can make informed choices when bids end up in the same place. It is more difficult when different funders don’t know what others are funding, and innovators don’t know who they may be competing with. My main additional point, taken from the NESTA paper, is that innovation often comes from joining up. If you know what else is happening.