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Ogunte, the company that supports and develops social ventures led by women, has recently announced the finalists in the 2012 Women’s Social Leadership Awards. Now in their 6th year, the awards continue to highlight the achievements of women world-wide whose truly innovative campaigns and enterprises not only benefit but also, crucially, engage and empower the people they serve.
This year, there are 9 finalists in three categories: Social Business Leader 2012 for women who have founded or are leading Social Businesses; Leader in the Workplace 2012 for women in intermediary roles providing activities that reach other social businesses and Leader in NFP/Networks/Campaigns for Change 2012 for women whose activities with no commercial purpose have changed peoples’ lives for the better.
It could be argued that the success or viability of a social venture is the ability of the concept, product or service to reach a mainstream audience and be replicable in a wider context. This is interesting. Social ventures are not main-stream. Not yet, anyway, hence the distinct definition. Perhaps, rather like the ‘alternative’ comedy of the early 1980’s that evolved quite literally as an alternative to the male dominated saucy-seaside-postcard comedy culture of the age, this approach will in time become the norm. However, at present they seek not only to deliver aims and outcomes that are seen as different, but also to do so in ways that are different. There is a strong sense that clear values and principles are much more tightly bound up in the activities and aims of social organisations than one might be used to seeing elsewhere.
There is, perhaps, something here that more socially-conscious corporates might want to think about in terms of what they can learn from social entrepreneurs – and indeed one of this year’s finalists is all about doing just that. Volans, led by Charmian Love, is an intermediary organisation where the core aim is to help businesses embed social and environmental value into their fundamental operating principles. They help clients rethink their business model and social aims, typified by moving one particular organisation’s philanthropic activity from ‘social investment’ to ‘social innovation’. By encouraging wider thinking and bringing together corporate players and social entrepreneurs, Volans enables a different approach to work that delivers the joint aims of both social and economic progress in a way that is environmentally positive and sustainable.
There is something very holistic and almost knitted about the way in which social organisations seamlessly combine the way they work, what they are doing and the outcomes they deliver. Susan Aktemel is a finalist in the Social Business Leader category and is the Director of Impact Arts, a Scotland-based national social enterprise established in 1994. Today, the organisation works with over 4000 children and vulnerable adults, changing lives through innovative, community based arts projects. Clear concepts, adhesion to core values and high quality delivery have been central to their success and growth. Projects include ‘Craft Cafes’ – where people over 50 can learn new skills, take part in creative activities and meet others – and ‘Fab Pad’, an interior design programme for vulnerable younger people to work with professional designers to make their home their own, leading to fewer cases of homelessness and disaffection.
It seems almost impossible to talk about social business and social innovation and not discuss the central role of women in this. Perhaps controversially, Ogunte proudly displays on its website the strapline ‘A better world, Powered by Women’. The implication is very clear that bringing women to the forefront of what makes the world work will make it better. This is in fact at the heart of the Ogunte manifesto and what informs all their work in supporting women with businesses, projects and networks that have both economic (directly or indirectly) and social impact as success criteria. It seems to be a way of saying that the culture, behaviours and values which typify the corporate world are not the only definition of strength and leadership and that these women, described by Ogunte as Social Innovators, present an alternative.
Of course, being different is not without its pitfalls. One of the judging criteria for these awards was the entrants’ ‘capacity to overcome obstacles and gain assurance’. Clearly this was in recognition of the level of swimming upstream needed to operate differently in an established environment. Bratindi Jena, a finalist in the Not-For-Profit Category, works on Actionaid India’s Niyamgiri Protection Campaign, started in 2003 in response to an attempt by a corporate organisation to mine natural resources from Niyamgiri – thus exploiting an area of vital ecological importance. Despite significant opposition and almost daily occurrences of personal threat, Bratindi took the campaign through the law courts and brought it to the attention of high profile national and international environmental bodies. This resulted in no mining licence being granted to date, and the on-going survival of the Niyamgiri and its indigenous people.
One of the social issues that has found its way a bit further into the collective consciousness is that of the expanding global population and the impact on the world’s finite resources. In response to this, Benita Matofska, finalist in the Social Business Leader Category, founded UK-based business The People Who Share, where she holds the enviable title of Chief Sharer. At the heart of Benita’s organisation lies the vision of transforming – through the art of trust and sharing – the ‘need to own’ into the ‘desire to access’, a shift she believes can have far-reaching benefits in areas including well-being, environmental preservation and community cohesion.
Though this kind of thing is theoretically highly scalable and replicable, there is room for doubt (or pessimism) as to how quickly, if at all, the mainstream psyche can move away from the desire to own and acquire. Yes – we are doing it in small ways (think lovefilm.com for DVDs and games or corporations that donate employees’ time and skills to good causes), but it remains to be seen whether widespread sharing will expand beyond the enlightened enthusiasts. Of course, in the fullness of time there may be absolutely no choice, so it’s down to us to decide whether or not to try and reverse the decline. The same applies, really, to the future of all social enterprise. Perhaps at the very heart of it all is whether there is the critical mass of enough people to whom altruism and social aims are of primary importance, in a world where consumerism, acquisition and ownership have for so long reigned supreme. Dare to be different.

Link to Guardian here: http://t.co/36uyxtXY