Maharey goes hunting social entrepreneurs

Steve Maharey is hunting “social entrepreneurs”. They’re like other entrepreneurs, only they are in it for social improvement, not the money.

And Maharey aims through them to “invert the state”. This is the modern form of social democracy: not top-down orders and uniform assembly-line services but bottom-up ideas and action.

He is next month [November] calling a social entrepreneurship conference to work out ways of plugging social entrepreneurs into the government’s social programmes — and vice-versa.

A conference called by a minister sounds a hoary socialist top-down way of dealing with a serendipitous, self-starting, unpredictable grassroots phenomenon.

But Maharey has grasped that. He’s not trying to fabricate entrepreneurs. The conference is funded by a private sector foundation. The iconic value in that is obvious: it takes an entrepreneur to spot one.

Maharey wants to develop techniques to identify and work alongside them. The last thing social entrepreneurs want — any more than business entrepreneurs — is the government cramping their style.

One option is a social venture capital fund, promoted at the Knowledge Wave conference in August, or a social investment bank. The idea is to provide capital for an entrepreneur (or enterprising community group) to run a show without a flow of government funds.

Easier said than done. It probably works better if private business stumps up at least some of the funds. Apart from the Warehouse’s Stephen Tindall and cereal king Dick Hubbard, there is no crush of business leaders beating down doors to stump up cash.

More likely is something like the South Canterbury Rugby Union’s “Team Works” version of the national “Rugby Works” programme. This was set up to provide work for rugby players, to keep them in the district, using wage subsidies supplied by the Department of Work and Income (DWI) to get them jobs.

But in the hands of its director, Jakki Benfell, a former domestic purposes beneficiary who now also coordinates the national programme, it has grown into a profitable stand-alone labour pool of 10 to 45 people, a “community business” to which people seeking work head before DWI instead of being referred by DWI. The state’s money covers only some administration and system development.

Then there is Ngahau Davis who revived Moerewa, a freezing works town that died, a place of “nobodies” with no hope, prospects or motivation. “Decisions were made for us by people we couldn’t see,” Davis says.

Davis organised the town around a project to get the district council to put up a public toilet. Then others developed projects — it became a place of “somebodies”. They got one “somebody” on the council and began to push the town’s case the way other communities did.

Now it is at the “everybody” stage. And when the council or the government offers help, the first question is “at what price” does the help come. The independence, the local control, is precious. This is classic social entrepreneurship.

It takes a bit of getting used to for old-style social democrats — and especially for this lot, which has recentralised education and health. Helen Clark is not the sort of Prime Minister to lightly loosen the reins.

But Maharey, once the butt of Clark’s scepticism about his toughness, has won her respect for his change of DWI’s focus to readying people for and getting them into real jobs.

There is thus a glimmer of possibility that he will in time win her over to state backing for these scary innovators and for his notion of “inverting the state”, of ground-up regeneration of communities and “resocialising people to work”. (He was a sociologist, so ugly jargon like that comes naturally.)

The key phrase is “over time”. Maharey set out early last year to develop a model contract for dealing with the myriad voluntary organisations which deliver some social services on the government’s behalf.

A task force headed by former Waitakere City Council deputy mayor Dorothy Wilson early this year reported that the “sector” was too fragmented and too suspicious of the government for a workable model contract. A second, less ambitious, phase, also under Wilson, will now focus on issues such as government-imposed compliance costs, problems of dealing with multiple government agencies and capacity-building.

Why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier to pull it all back into the state’s maws? No, says would-be modern social democrat Maharey: “Community leadership is essential to finding solutions to social issues.” And the best people at that are those rare and unpredictable social entrepreneurs.