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A degree of concern

Where do you go if you want to labour for society's benefit rather than for profit? To the School for Social Entrepreneurs. By Jack O'Sullivan
Michael Young is probably Britain's most successful social entrepreneur. The Consumers' Association, the Open University and College of Health are among his creations - in half a century he has invented more than 40 organisations. So he knows a lot about the current fashion of innovation for the social good rather than for profit. And, at 81, he plans to pass his expertise on through his latest creation - a School for Social Entrepreneurs, which opens its doors in January to the next generation of would-be movers and shakers in the voluntary sector.

"For the high-minded and the hard-headed", the school is designed to demonstrate that doing good requires more than sandals and brown rice. It aims to be a rigorous business school for the voluntary sector, offering a year-long course designed to improve the innovatory skills of those working in that area. The school is also meant to respond to reality, namely that the rapidly expanding voluntary sector is taking over many of the roles once played by the state.

In a speech in June, Tony Blair endorsed "social entrepreneurs - those people who bring to social problems the same enterprise and imagination that business entrepreneurs bring to wealth creation".

"There are many people," says Lord Young, "who are dedicated neither to making profit nor serving the state. So what do they do? The third sector seems the obvious place for them to go, but it has not had the best of images, which means that this sector may not be attracting the most able people."

Two skills, he says, are vital to social innovation. Tact and tenacity. "Tact, because it is far better to listen than talk until one knows one is on firm ground. Listening, especially to people who think you are a bit crazy, is very helpful, because some of their objections will be good. If you just barge in and say what you are going to do regardless, you just create opposition and put people's backs up.

"Tenacity is obviously also necessary. Nothing happens quickly. There will be setbacks. Things will go wrong. Money may not materialise. So you have to believe in what you are doing. Some sense of social purpose is pretty important."

Lord Young recalls that founding the Consumers' Association required all these skills. He had the idea in the Forties, having seen a similar organisation set up in the US. A Gallup poll he commissioned in 1950 revealed that a consumer protection agency was more popular than any of the Labour Party's other proposals, including nationalisation of the iron and steel industry. "Since I was writing the election programme, I slipped it in and no one on the National Executive Committee made anything of it," says Lord Young. But, in government, the idea was quashed by civil servants. "They said - as I have found so often when I propose something new - that it was already being done by various other bodies." So it was not until 1957 that the association was founded in the voluntary sector.

"We published Which? magazine at the launch press conference in the Waldorf hotel, which was attended by 150 journalists. For the first edition, we had done research into big variations in the price of aspirin and into the quality of electric kettles. But not a word of this appeared in the newspapers, which were worried about libel. We had no money even to pay the printers and we had 5,000 unsold copies on our hands. Then a few lines appeared in The Times and a great stack of letters arrived. I knew we would make it when, very unusually, a taxi drew up outside our offices in the East End and a boy got out, saying, `I'm from Marks & Spencer in Baker Street and I've been told to take out 20 subscriptions.' Within a month, we had 10,000 subscribers."

The academic year at the School for Social Entrepreneurs will begin with three months' intensive study of successful and failed ventures and include visits to organisations to compile management consultant-style reports. Study will include business and strategic planning, marketing, finance and operations management, charity law, fund-raising and management of volunteers.

Backed by mentors and a peer group, students will then be placed in voluntary organisations for nine months to advance a specific innovation. They will also complete a six-month part-time Open University business school course in voluntary sector management. Each batch of students, though in different parts of the country, will stay in touch with each other and mentors through a newsgroup on the Internet.

The School for Social Entrepreneurs will be launched next Wednesday. It is expected that each of the initial 25 places will require pounds 10,000 in funding. Charges will vary according to the resources of the seconding organisation. There will be some bursaries. The school's financial backers include the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank and its director is David Stockley, formerly chief executive of EMI International. Several big charities, including Amnesty International, Oxfam, Age Concern, the Children's Society and the Royal London hospital, are partners in the venture.

Among the first batch of recruits is a retired policeman who wants to set up an employment agency for ex-officers, particularly those who have worked in the community, so they can do more socially useful jobs than the typical position as a security guard. Another student wants to establish a national support centre for self-help health groups. There are now said to be 2,300 such groups, with more than two million members, operating alongside the NHS, but often with poor links with the health service.

"We're looking," says Lord Young, "for people who have an altruistic vision, zest, the ability to be self-starters, and are capable of rising to a new challenge".

The School for Social Entrepreneurs is at 18 Victoria Park Square, London E2 9PF; fax: 0181-981 6719; e-mail: michael.young@which.net