Terms like ‘start-up’ and ‘social enterprise’ sound like brand new approaches to pervasive social issues. But, as he explains below, James Noble has found that the model is not quite as new as we might think. And like the social enterprises of old, modern ventures need a solid approach to understanding and improving the success of their work. We’ve just launched a new guide to help.

Sometimes social entrepreneurship and innovation is presented as the modern take on the more traditional charity model. But in fact, many of the earliest charities were social enterprises in all but name.

Take the Marine Society, for example. Established in 1756 by Jonas Hanway during the Seven Years’ War, the model was to get the merchant naval sector to pay for recruiting, clothing and training young sailors for the Royal Navy. The merchants were willing because they needed a strong Navy to protect their routes. Social impact came from recruiting men and boys from disadvantaged backgrounds—in particular, ‘those with no proper occupation or apprenticeship, those who were endangered by poverty and crime’—and helping them into maritime occupations.

NPC has been working with Jonas Hanway’s modern day counterparts through the Young Academy—a programme of support for innovators who are trying to tackle the educational disadvantage that exists today. Our particular role has been around evidence and measuring impact, and it is striking how many of the issues facing organisation’s today were also relevant in the eighteenth century.

For example, once the Seven Years’ War was over, the Marine Society business model was vulnerable so they needed to communicate a clear message about their social impact. The NPC of the 1750s would have said they needed a theory of change. We might claim that they did this unwittingly through the arguments put forward for the continuation of their work:

‘By changing their object, they [the boys] acquire a new turn, and may become as useful as they would otherwise be pernicious.’

Another issue was that, early on, the Marine Society found that because they were offering free clothing and accommodation, lots of men and boys outside their target group were using the service. These were either boys who absconded as soon as they got what they needed, or men who were going to join the Navy anyway and went through the Society for the free clothes (technically speaking an ‘additionally problem’). In response, the Society tightened-up their referral criteria and collected better data on new entrants through something called the ‘Foul-entry book’.

Today’s social enterprises need to think in exactly the same way; to collect data and evidence to check they are reaching the right people and that the service seems to be working as intended.

When it comes to impact, the Marine Society faced the familiar challenges that impact tends to be long-term and therefore hard to measure. But they did do some of things we would have recommended: collect the right sort of data to help them measure impact in the long-run; and speak to stakeholders who can comment on the work, like Admiral Boscawen here:

‘No scheme for manning the navy, within my knowledge, has ever had the success as the Marine Society’s.’

So if you’re inspired by this ‘ye olde worlde’ success, our later-day thoughts on how social enterprises and start-ups might approach evidence and data collection are published today in what we hope is a useful guide. In it, we outline key stages to building a culture of evidence, in a clear and accessible way (without any elaborate analogies!).

Download the guide free.Picture of Hanway with umbrella

(A final little point of interest, like all good entrepreneurs, Jonas Hanway’s most successful ideas were borrowed from somewhere else: He was the first person in London to use an umbrella. Look at him go!)

Source: Pietsch, Roland (2000), Urchins for the sea, Journal for Maritime Research, Routledge

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