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Guest blog: Inspiring social change starts by understanding it

In 2012, I co-wrote a report called Growing Social Ventures looking at the state of social enterprise in Britain. One of the big questions arising from the report was where the next generation of social leaders was going to come from?  That’s where Year Here comes in - my ambition was to provide the most developmental year imaginable for bright grads that are ambitious about social change.

Take a bunch of intelligent and enthusiastic graduates with an appetite for building solutions to society’s toughest problems, and the results are bound to be fantastic, right? At face value, you would think so - we could point to the ventures that we’ve helped take off, the initiatives in the community that are ongoing, and the funding we’ve secured for the next generation of social leaders and entrepreneurs.

But real social change, beyond a shiny reflection on your CV or an impressive accomplishment to show off to your peers, is hard. It involves thankless effort, constant obstacles, and failure. For every venture that goes on to secure funding, there are countless others that amount to nothing.

We know that Generation Y, more than any other generation, wants to engage with social issues and tackle them head on. So what tools can we give them to succeed as social entrepreneurs? I think it boils down to three simple principles that every social leader needs to bear in mind, through both failure and success:

  • Social leaders need to understand – directly through lived experience – the issues they wish to solve.
  • Social leaders need to facilitate change – rather than deliver it. The former is sustainable progress, the latter risks descending into a ‘feel good innovation trap. 
  • Social leaders need to build relationships across sectors – it is not enough to be right, you need to be powerful too.

Let me take these in turn.

Firstly, social leaders need to understand directly the problem they are tackling. Ground up insight is a cornerstone of effective leadership on any social issue – quite simply, you need the fire in the belly that gives you the resilience to get through the obstacles in your way. And the only way to get this fire in your belly is to see for yourself directly what those people you want to support are experiencing.  How many policy makers in this day and age are truly practising this? We would argue not enough.

Secondly, social leaders need to facilitate change – it has to happen with people, not be directed at people. Real progressive social change that transforms communities relies on those at the heart of change understanding, owning and taking forward change.  And this means asking hard, uncomfortable questions about our own ideas for improving society. Existing industry language like ‘empower’, ‘co create’ can mask schemes that in reality play right into the hands of structural inequality.  We need more critical thought around the power dynamics of social innovations. Ultimately, is this change for my own sense of contribution, or is it a real platform to unlock community agency – whatever direction that may lead towards.

Thirdly, social leaders should be seeing the bigger picture. For every issue they commit themselves to, there will be others across government, the charity sector and the private sector that are either actively tackling the problem or trying to understand it. Very rarely is your problem unique – even if your solution is. Broaden your insight and explore what existing resources are in place to address the issue. Every social entrepreneur wants to develop that ‘home-run’ venture, but often you can contribute just as much to social progress by collaboration as well as creation. Find allies – in the community, in government, in business that are passionate about the problem and get your heads together. You may take half the credit, but you’ll make twice the impact.

It’s with this in mind that Year Here operates. We are a full-time postgraduate course in social innovation based in London, designed to cultivate entrepreneurial approaches to entrenched social problems. Unlike a traditional Master’s degree, it’s immersive, action-oriented and grounded in the daily experience of those at the frontline of inequality. Fellows start by spending 5 months volunteering in care homes, homeless hostels and youth services across London – in position to support and learn from those at the frontline of disadvantage. They are then challenged to test and build solutions to social problems. They work together to launch creative responses, campaigns and ventures that make a real impact.  

We have no campus, no teachers, no fee. Instead, Fellows learn in the real world – in placements and projects across the city – and are guided by our leading faculty of social sector practitioners including activists, entrepreneurs and politicians. And 3 months after graduating: 

  • 46% of our alumni were leading their own social enterprise 
  • 32% were working for another startup charity or social enterprise 
  • The remainder were working in government, consultancy or frontline roles.

Up for the challenge? Check out Year Here prospectus  – our application window is open until the 11th June, and you can apply for our programme here.

Jack Graham - CEO & Founder of Year Here, and a Freshminds Ones to Watch alumnus

Jack Graham has a background in youth leadership, having run Leonard Cheshire Disability’s international internship scheme, adapted the Faking It TV series into an intensive employability programme for unemployed East Londoners, and worked as Head of Operations of a youth-led HIV/AIDS NGO in Zambia. He was also recently named one of Nesta and The Observer's 50 New Radicals.

Jack founded Year Here while at the Young Foundation, a centre for social innovation in East London. Year Here is  a full-time postgraduate course in social innovation based in London, designed to cultivate entrepreneurial approaches to entrenched social problems. Unlike a traditional Master's degree, it's immersive, action-oriented and grounded in the daily experience of those at the frontline of inequality.  

yearhere.org