Do-gooders could do better

At 81, the man who dreamt up the Open University is starting a school.
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Michael Young has dreamt up many of the best known and most loved institutions which have started in the latter half of this century - the Consumers' Association, Which? magazine and the Open University, to name but three.

Now, at 81, the man who wrote the 1945 Labour manifesto is launching his latest brainchild - the School for Social Entrepreneurs - a business school for the voluntary sector.

Charities are saddled with a reputation for being bumbling organisations trapped by inefficiency from fulfilling their potential. The legal framework in which they operate and even the designation "charity" suggests 19th- century do-gooding aspirations. Innovations, daring management practice, and the drive to achieve are more likely to be found in profit-making organisations. Lord Young wants to combine the hard-headedness of the business community with the high-mindedness of the voluntary sector.

This is not so much Lord Young's latest brainchild, but the culmination of a lifetime of coming up with extraordinary ideas and finding ways to put them into practice. Now he wants there to be more of us doing that. It will be his legacy to a country that he has shaped more radically, though usually with scant public acclaim, than almost any other 20th-century figure.

"I've started all these damn things and I think I know more or less how to do it - though I can't articulate it - it's just in the tips of my fingers. I hope students will convert it into a voice. I hope to pass on something before it's too late."

But Lord Young does not see the School for Social Entrepreneurs as his swan song. Sixteen months ago he became a father for the fifth time - to his daughter Gaia. He is very much looking forward to the future.

"Being a father is great. Children are wonderful. I'm lucky to have one later in life so I can be a father and grandfather all at once. I find it exhausting, but I have a lot of energy.

"I seem to have a lot of energy for starting things. I get a rush of adrenaline from new things. I love fostering new projects which are then ready to go on their own. It's like watching children grow up. I just move on from one to the next." Perhaps knowing how long to stay with a project is one of the secrets of Lord Young's success. He has innovative ideas and is tremendously adept at getting them off the ground, but he does not mind leaving their fulfilment to others. He is skilled at choosing the right people, too, often young, dynamic and idealistic, with talents that he can develop and harness to his ideas. He is a man both aware of his strengths and able to allow other people to take on and mould his fledglings. He knows when to let go.

His latest scheme takes advantage of the mood in the country under a new government. He was made a life peer by Jim Callaghan in 1978, but broke with the Labour Party to join the SDP. He has since returned to the fold. "Labour might manage to change the moral climate, with luck."

Now he believes the voluntary sector will start to get a bit more attention. In a speech last month, Tony Blair gave his personal endorsement to "social entrepreneurs - those people who bring to social problems the same enterprise and imagination that business entrepreneurs bring to wealth creation".

The philosophical framework behind the school was the subject of a pamphlet published by the think-tank Demos in February, "The Rise of the Social Entrepreneurs". Its author, Charles Leadbetter, welcomed the school: "One of the problems with the welfare system is that it has failed to innovate and learn as new circumstances arise. It has undermined social cohesion and has not been a way of generating a sense of community. In fact, it often robs people of a sense of independence.

"The social entrepreneurs I wrote about combined the skills of the entrepreneur with a social drive, so that they understood how to use underutilised resources to create value - such as empty buildings - and had a social drive to create a sustainable community."

Lord Young sees the not-for- profit sector as vital to the future of Britain. Already general charities employ more than 400,000 paid staff and 3 million volunteers. They have a fast-growing income of pounds 12bn a year, not all of it being used to maximum effect. Properly channelled, such resources could have a tremendous impact on society. "We need to band together to think out new roles for the voluntary sector, because there are real opportunities. The state is too mixed up in bureaucracy, so there are good people but they are blocked. Voluntary bodies need to be small, lively and entrepreneurial."

The School for Social Entrepreneurs is already becoming a reality and it has strong allies. Oxfam, Amnesty International and the Royal National Institute for the Blind are just three of the charities in partnership with it. The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank is one of the financial backers. The school's director is David Stockley, who was formerly chief executive of EMI International. The school will be open to people of all ages and backgrounds. Ultimately he wants to encourage the most able graduates to choose a career in the voluntary sector. "We must encourage people to work neither for the state, nor for profit, but for the public good."

Will the School for Social Entrepreneurs join the long list of Lord Young's projects that become so successful that we end up believing they are just part of the fabric of society, part of the way we do things here? Maybe a party held last Wednesday at the Institute of Community Studies, of which Lord Young is director, can give us the answer. It was the Institute's farewell to Language Line, a telephone interpreting service in 140 languages which runs 24 hours a day. It had become so successful that it had outgrown the office space available and was moving to King's Cross. Like so many of Lord Young's original projects, it is now big enough to strike out alone.

Language Line is now used by the police, hospitals, benefits agencies, local government and other public bodies in need of immediate help when dealing with someone who cannot understand English. Lord Young came up with the idea when he heard that Bengali patients were dying in the Royal London Hospital because they could not talk to their doctors. He saw the need and worked out the solution. It is that skill which he will pass on in his School for Social Entrepreneurs. After all Lord Young has been doing it for half a century.