Do you need social enterprise more than it needs you?

by Craig Dearden-Phillips 10/07/2015

It’s confession time. Craig Dearden-Phillips, founder of Stepping Out, which champions enterprise in public services, shares his dirty secret – and explains why he no longer needs (so much) bigging up from his socially entrepreneurial endeavours.

Why do people choose to become social entrepreneurs? The stock answer is altruism or a dazzling insight into how to make the world a better place. Or some notion of profit with purpose. Not so I. For me, and I suspect many others tilling this particular corner, it was more complicated. Social entrepreneurship wasn’t about saving others so much as salvaging myself.

Let me explain. My simple observation, without criticism, is that many of its leading practitioners are seeking to compensate for things that happened to us or we think we have done. I am 20 years in social business. During that time I have heard literally hundreds of social entrepreneurs tell their tale. And I’d say a good third are people who, like me, were doing it primarily to meet an inner need.

So what’s the attraction-factor for neurotics like me? I actually think that the life of a social entrepreneur is tailor-made for a certain type of person. Think about it: You regularly do 100 hour weeks, get paid very little. But, if you get it right, you quickly gain a LOT of recognition and praise.

My story is illustrative. I started my first venture at 25. Things went well. Within a few years I was garlanded with awards and got on the Honours List while still in my 30s. I wrote a well-received book and spent more time on platforms than running my business. The social enterprise sector was a perfect stage. Success in this world, with its lavish awards culture and endless bigging-up, gave me a sense of validation that wasn’t coming from myself.

And so it continued. For a long time – till my middle 30s – I kept what felt like a dirty secret: that my social enterprise motives were not saintly. I needed social enterprise more than it needed me. I could put up with the hours and the anxiety because what I got back, in psychological reward, was keeping me safe.

Then came marriage and kids. For the first time in my life I needed money and time to invest in a family life. My old existence and its certainties came under threat. For a few years I stuck with the hours and lousy pay but soon enough it started to grate. My personal life felt under pressure as the reward for my constant absence was an ever-growing overdraft. The first precious years of my children’s lives passed in a blur of underpaid over-activity. I also realised that I didn’t need the drug anymore.

So came the break. In 2010 I set up my own company. I left the formal world of social enterprise (the one in which private ownership can feel frowned upon) and created a new limited company which had both social and personal financial purpose to it. While what followed was just as taxing as the old business, this new venture felt right for me in a way that it hadn’t for some years.

This wasn’t just because the money got better. It also felt like huge personal progress. I could, through this new business, both serve my family and ‘put back’ into society in a way that was driven less by guilt and more by choice.

So, yes, while I virtually doubled my money and halved my hours, I also set up a Foundation which has received near £30,000 from the proceeds of the business. We back very early ventures and we match all staff volunteering. I love it. The difference now is that this ‘putting back’ is coming from a healthier place. I am doing it because I want to, not because I need to. Oddly enough I now feel like a social entrepreneur by choice not necessity. Which type are you?

This article was originally published in Pioneers Post Quarterly, the printed edition of this magazine.

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