Can Only The Privileged Play?

Pritpal S Tamber

June 14, 2018

How in 'social innovation', it seems that only the privileged can play

Over the last few weeks we’ve found our desire to not be a formal organisation an issue. A few funders have expressed interest in our aims but said that we either need an “asset lock” or not be a for-profit entity with only one shareholder. Neither are currently an option for us.

An asset lock is a mechanism by which an organisation ensures that its money cannot be used for private gain (more here). When you’re receiving philanthropic money, it makes all the sense in the world that the receiving organisation isn’t structured such that the money could be siphoned off by an inscrutable individual. We’re not even an organisation, never mind an organisation with an asset lock.

The same reasoning applies to for-profit entities with only one shareholder. Myself and Beyond Systems’ organiser both work as consultants through our own for-profit entities. Mine only has me as a shareholder. So, all in all, we don’t have the right vehicle to receive money.

That’s not insurmountable, of course. While we’re reluctant to create something new, we have people within the Steering Group who work in vehicles with the necessary structures. So, we could conceivably use them as our ‘fiscal sponsor’.

However what strikes me is how hard it is to get an idea off the ground. We’ve done a huge amount of work over the last two-and-a-half years to delve into a big issue and establish a vision to organise around. I don’t think there are many other groups out there that have worked this hard, and certainly hardly any that have done it with so little funding. But our ability to turn our ideas into a reality comes down to whether we can do the paper work.

I spent this afternoon looking at another funder’s terms and conditions. With them, we don’t have the vehicle issue – yet – but just understanding the terms of the application took almost two hours.

That’s two unpaid hours, to be clear.

Of course, many social innovators (I so hate that label) will shrug and say that’s life. But, as a relative newbie to the field, and as someone with a lot of experience of the start up world, I’m fascinated by how it’s only those with privelege that can play. Without the right vehicle – which we should be clear requires a certain level of education – and enough money in the bank to forgo making money today you’re just not welcome in this game.

That has to be wrong.

I’m sure we have enough assets at the table to overcome all this – vehicles, education and money in the bank – but I can’t help wondering what the implications are for social innovation when only the privileged can play.

And whether we’re just part of the problem.

Pritpal S Tamber

I'm an independent writer, researcher and consultant focussing on community health and medical information. I'm a former physician, medical editor and medical publisher, and also the former Physician Editor of TEDMED. I began my career at The BMJ. For more information, see the About page.

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