When Andrew Mawson arrived in Bromley-by-Bow, east London, in 1984, the agencies that were supposed to be helping local people were, he says, characterised by 'a lot of management committees and a lot of sitting around drinking coffee'. He continues: 'When I went to see Karen over the road, who was living in a deprived council estate, wondering where her children's next meal was coming from, I realised that none of the talking was actually doing anything for her.'
The story helps explain how the Reverend Mawson, who had just taken charge of the local United Reformed Church, came to found a Healthy Living Centre that has become the heart of the local community, employing more than 100 people and offering a wide range of services from medical treatment to training, nursery facilities and even garden allotments. It also led to Mawson becoming an evangelist for a new creed: that of the social entrepreneur.
'We have got to back people with ideas,' he says. 'It's all about delivering to people who really need support and assistance, and not just talking.'
The idea has clearly caught the imagination of the present Government.
Soon after he came to power in 1997, Tony Blair announced in a speech that 'we will be backing thousands of 'social entrepreneurs', those people who bring to social problems the same enterprise and imagination that business entrepreneurs bring to wealth creation'.
On first airing, the term sounds like an oxymoron. 'Social' calls to mind social services, traditionally about as far as you can get from the cut-and-thrust world of fast money-making usually associated with the entrepreneur.
There's no single definition of what makes a person a social entrepreneur. Michael Young, who founded the School for Social Entrepreneurs in east London, has summed it up as 'someone with the heart of a do-gooder but the mind of a businessman'. The Community Action Network, a national organisation co-founded by Mawson, offers the following definition: 'Social entrepreneurs are the equivalent of true business entrepreneurs but they operate in the social, not-for-profit sector, building 'something from nothing' and seeking new and innovative solutions to social problems.'
And in his 1997 Demos pamphlet on the subject, writer Charles Leadbeater provided a number of further clues for spotting a social entrepreneur.
They are social, he said, because their output is promoting health and welfare; their assets are relationships, networks and co-operation; and they are not driven by profit as their main objective. And they are entrepreneurs because they excel at spotting unmet needs; they are driven and charismatic individuals; and they are usually innovative.
James Smith, the director of the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE), takes it a step further. He believes social entrepreneurs succeed where governments fail. 'Governments have proved unsuccessful at dealing with problems in certain communities because they just don't know how to approach them,' he says. 'But many social entrepreneurs come from these communities and have a vision of what needs to be achieved.'
He argues that there are many individuals out there who want to change society for the better; they just need a little support and encouragement.
It's a view that seems to be catching on - the school is attracting increasing numbers of students and is branching out across the UK, with new programmes being run in Salford and two more planned for Glasgow and Belfast.
It is clear that social entrepreneurs, in so far as they truly exist as a breed in their own right, don't fit neatly into any of the boxes that we like to divide people into: private sector, public sector, voluntary sector. They may have started in one, but they usually find themselves dipping their toes into the others. Where the waters become a little muddied is over the extent to which social entrepreneurs adopt the principles of business, particularly in terms of making profits.
There is also a grey area between what makes an individual a social entrepreneur and what makes them an ethical businessman or woman.
Anita Roddick, founder of Body Shop, is probably the name that springs most readily to mind in the latter category. She is less certain whether she deserves to be called a social entrepreneur. 'It depends how it is defined. I was an activist when I set up the Body Shop, and from day one it was about championing the issues that I cared about.'
However, although Roddick's main energies may have gone into issues such as promoting cosmetics that are not tested on animals and highlighting the plight of endangered peoples in countries such as Brazil, she has backed a number of community projects in the UK; in 1984, Body Shop built a new soap factory at Easterhouse, which Roddick says 'was probably the poorest housing community in western Europe'.
She also backed The Big Issue, the magazine distributed by homeless people.
Both are commercial ventures, and Roddick believes the profit imperative is important. 'You don't set up an enterprise unless you want it to make money,' she says. 'Otherwise it's a charity. For us, the idea was always to be self-financing at the end of the day.'
She adds: 'For me it's all about job creation. If you create jobs that are meaningful, you are giving people the tools to get out of poverty, and that's when they get their self-esteem.'
It is far easier to apply the social entrepreneur label to Paul Harrod and Mark Richardson, the founders of Aspire. After they graduated from Oxford university, Harrod and Richardson, both aged 24, set up Aspire to provide employment for homeless people. The business is based around a catalogue that includes kitchenware, stationery, jewellery, games and fair-trade items from overseas, and homeless people are taken on to distribute and collect the catalogue, in addition to taking some orders. 'It gives people the chance to hold down a full-time job with a guaranteed wage, to come off benefits and to put their past behind them,' says Harrod. 'One guy we took on in Bristol has gone on to become assistant manager at one of the best cafe bars in the city; another has gone off to set up an internet cafe in Devon.'
Harrod says that he and his partner were originally motivated to do something that was 'charitable in the broadest sense. I suppose we wanted to prove that you can do business that puts people first rather than just looking at your bank balance at the end of the year.'
Aspire has received some venture capital backing, and Harrod and Richardson hope the business will eventually be profitable. They are using their success so far - turnover was pounds 150,000 in the first year - as a platform for expansion, first to London and Birmingham, then to half a dozen other towns and cities.
Harrod says: 'I think this is a more sustainable model than a charity, because even with the best charities a certain amount of the funds raised goes towards fundraising and administration costs. But our revenue is recycled and re-used so that, starting from small amounts, we can do more and more.'
According to Smith of SSE, this sort of attitude is becoming increasingly acceptable. 'Michael Young and I started working on the SSE in 1995 and we were always having to define what we meant by a social entrepreneur,' he says. 'But now there is much more recognition. And you're no longer considered whacky and way-out if you want to be an entrepreneur for the sake of improving something in society rather than for making pots of money.'
If there is one thing that unites social entrepreneurs it is addressing social problems that other agencies have either neglected or failed to tackle effectively.
Carmel McConnell felt compelled to do something when she read an article on the BBC web site about child poverty in the UK. According to Unicef, said the article, Britain's level of child poverty was among the worst in the developed world. McConnell then learned from a teacher friend that staff would often bring bananas to school to feed children who were hungry. She set about creating the Magic Sandwich Project, a scheme that is intended to get food to underfed children in London schools, as well as providing education on the importance of healthy eating.
McConnell is looking for support from retailers and other businesses, as well as talking to other charities; she hopes to get a pilot up and running in January. Proceeds from her book Change Activist will support the project, together with a further donation promised by Pearson, the publishing group.
McConnell believes that, just as businesses need to broaden their outlook from simply making money to making a social contribution, individuals need to do the same. And she is resistant to the idea that social entrepreneurs should be viewed as a class apart. 'I believe that everyone can make a contribution, and that anyone from anywhere can create a successful enterprise,' she says. 'If you are doing something from your heart, and you know that you are living to your potential, then, in my experience, you will be successful.'
Mike Knight, who established the Speke Community Credit Union in 1989, is proof that you don't need business experience or qualifications to set up as a social entrepreneur. Living in Speke, Liverpool, one of the most deprived wards in the UK, Knight had seen all the high street banks leave the area and the loan sharks move in. 'I was one of 16 children, so I suppose I'd always had it a bit rough, and I'd seen first hand what predatory lending did to people,' he says.
Rather than accept the situation he decided to set up a community credit union, which has been so successful that it's now expanding to cover a greater area of Liverpool.
'Although I didn't have business experience, I was accepted onto the SSE, where I came up with the business plan and everything else that was needed for the credit union,' Knight recalls.
'It's all the standard stuff that would be required in the business world.
We're not playing at it.'
The union, which started awarding loans for treats like a week's caravan holiday, now has the capital to fund someone's two-week holiday in Bali, and has seen off nearly all the predatory lenders in the area. 'The only way you can learn is by rolling your sleeves up and doing it,' says Knight.
'And if I can do it, anyone can. There's no mystique about it. We're just making a go of this for our community.'
For Mawson, social enterprise is primarily about recognising that many of the conventional structures and attitudes in the social sector simply don't work. 'We are trying to put in place the foundation stones for a new, entrepreneurial culture in the public and voluntary sectors.'
He adds: 'We say it is individuals who make things happen, not committees.
If you look at the most successful community projects around the country, they are run by individuals with leadership qualities, not by committees.'
In his view, social enterprise is therefore about opening up the market, so that whoever can deliver the best solutions has the opportunity to do so. And if that means harnessing the resources of business in a relationship that is often mutually advantageous, then so much the better.
'Good leadership in whichever sector involves handing over power to other people,' he adds. 'But it needs one person to inspire in the first instance.' Social entrepreneurs may not command the aspirational celebrity of their counterparts who have made fortunes in business. Nor can they be easily stereotyped. But they are gaining recognition. And with the pressures growing, both for business to contribute more and for the social sector to become more businesslike, their profile can only rise.
Resources for social entrepreneurs are available at the Community Action Network's web site - www.can-online.org.uk - and at the School for Social Entrepreneurs' web site: www.sse.org.uk
Change Activist by Carmel McConnell is to be published by momentum/Prentice Hall in January, priced at pounds 15
HOW TO BE A SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR
- Accept that the financial rewards won't be huge; social entrepreneurs don't set out to get rich quick.
- Social entrepreneurs are most successful when they tackle a problem of which they have first-hand experience. Observe what you can change in your own community.
- Network your local community - local councillors, local education authorities and MPs can all help.
- Have a serious business plan and financial goals.
- Talk your idea through with an individual whose advice you respect.
- Teach yourself business and financial basics - you'll need them when persuading others to invest in the project.
- Don't try to cure all social ills with one project. Refine your idea to target a specific need.
- Remember, the more seriously you take the business and its goals, the more seriously others will take you.