How enterprising is your social enterprise?

So the SOCCKET ball is the latest incredibly dumb development idea to get the treatment from the blogosphere, led by tea-drinker Aaron Ausland. In his latest post he gives the SOCCKET ball co-inventor and ‘Chief Social Officer’ of Uncharted Play, Julia C Silverman, the right of reply.

“I’d like to clarify Uncharted Play’s business model for the SOCCKET product …  We are a social enterprise, not an NGO; we answer to our investors and are kept afloat by revenue, not donations as your post implies …

For our users in disadvantaged communities, corporations and public institutions underwrite the cost of SOCCKET distribution through bulk/wholesale ball purchases. Users (children) “earn” the balls by participating in the programming of our official NGO partners.

Our corporate partners are wonderful, but they are not development institutions. When they were deciding to work with us, they were evaluating whether to put marketing dollars into SOCCKET sponsorship or into another campaign, not another charity.”

So, let’s just be clear about this: Uncharted Play is ‘selling’ the SOCCKET balls, just not to the end users. I.e. they are relying upon a traditional aid model and CSR-style conscience-buying, and then trying to make money out of it. Sounds rather like some big ugly consultancies I know … More to the point their feedback model is as broken as the rest of the aid system. A bottom-of-the-pyramid business proposition this is not.

“Given the distribution of accountability, it would be all too easy for us to simply pay lip service to our social mission while dedicating the bulk of our financial and human resources to sales, marketing, etc.. However … this is not the case: we are truly focused on collaborating with communities to implement meaningful, catalytic programs, and – rather than resting on our laurels or focusing strictly on profit – we are taking aggressive action to engage closely with our partners and participants and track outcomes so that we can drive toward maximal positive impact.”

Really? This reads just like typical drivel from a development agency with negligible impact. What ‘impact’ are they seeking? How many kicks of the ball does it take for a kid to generate enough electricity to power a light while they do one hour’s homework? In fact it looks like the one part of their social enterprise that is doing its job well is the marketing department. So all very reminiscent of the NGO world

I know plenty of people are very sceptical about the concept of a social enterprise. Uncharted Play unfortunately appears to be a living embodiment of all their arguments that it is just the same old guff dressed up in new clothes. A pity for all the truly enterprising social enterprises out there.

ps. Ms Silverman also claims:

“… kids have found the product to be truly magical. … When we actually say that the ball is special, that it can harness energy and power a lamp or a phone, there is always a collective yell of excitement.  Then, when we plug in a lamp to demonstrate, the kids’ eyes just pop out of their heads, and you can see the wheels beginning to turn.”

Has Ms Silverman considered that this might partly be because the kids have just received the coolest physics lesson of their lives? It would be great if more science lessons could be this inspiring, but I doubt very much it represents value for money for destitute kids.

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