The Hero with a Thousand Faces

| No responses | Posted by: Helen Goulden | Theme: Social Innovation & Investment

Moving beyond an individualistic model of social innovation and entrepreneurship and towards a more networked approach to achieving social change and building movements.

In 1949 Joseph Campbell wrote ‘Hero with a thousand faces’ comparing the vast array of stories of ‘heroes’ in many world mythologies. In this review, Campbell reflected back to us, in some detail, the idea that these stories are all based on the same foundations. That we essentially tell one, same, consistent story – in a thousand different ways. The story will be well known to you:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day: fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”

Heroes live among us. In literature, film, activism, politics. From Greek myths to Star Wars, our attraction to heroic endeavour is deep within every culture; deep within our psyche. It pervades most of our modern day story-telling. We demand a story with a human face. We love to journey with them through adversity; sharing in their agonies and rejoicing in their triumphs.

For those of us working in the field of social enterprise and social investment, well, heroes are not only prevalent, it’s a sector that’s actively constructed to create heroes. Entrepreneurs and innovators who hit upon an idea, take an often painful and relentless route to developing and growing their idea – which often is at odds with a dominant culture or received way of doing things – and through their successes, bring something valuable back to their ‘fellow man’ [sic].

You will have encountered these heroes; you may be one. And they are absolutely needed. Some have achieved some serious scale and impact. And there’s no doubt that there’s a clear present and future need for social enterprises to be a fundamental part of a more inclusive economy. But many enterprises have struggled to scale, or shifted the needle on a particular complex social challenge – either individually or in aggregate.

And, as this very timely article points out, the collective evidence on the efforts of social enterprise and investment is surprisingly thin. And these efforts have not yet succeeded in driving the shifts in power and equality that underpin so many of our complex social challenges. And indeed, I have a lurking fear that some of the social businesses and enterprises that focus on servicing acute need, and are underpinned by a straightforward, revenue generating business model, may actually lead to creating an industry of servicing downstream effects, rather than upstream, systemic change. Perhaps in the way the business case for recycling led to a whole industry of servicing the rubbish created by an existing system – rather than making any substantive changes to the system itself.

But aside from that, and despite some successes, why hasn’t a more market-driven, enterprise approach realised the level of change that we might have expected in the UK and across Europe? Could it be that because it’s still early days? Or due to challenges of commissioners and markets? Relatively insignificant investment flows? Lack of integration with mainstream businesses and industries? All possibly true. It could also of course be that we’ve fallen for that hard-wired, monomyth of the hero. We have, whether through our grant funding, incubation, accelerator programmes or investment funds almost exclusively taken as our starting point, support for individuals and individual organisations to bring about the change we want to see.

And we need to get beyond that.

Because there’s a strong argument that our most important heroic endeavours are not individual, they are collective, And our ‘boon’ is generated from many, many different kinds of actors – including local communities – playing different kinds of roles, changing different behaviours, to achieve a particular kind of change or impact. It is non-linear, often non-transactional, networked and complex – and as such may not be able to be ‘orchestrated’ in quite the same way.

And for me, this creates both practical and philosophical questions, such as:

What does that mean for the well-developed and honed enterprise support and investment infrastructure that has built up around a more individualistic approach to social enterprise and venturing? How does it evolve – or extend – to support a more networked approach to achieving social change and building movements?

And if we know that evidence and arguments aren’t enough to make major transitions in our culture and behaviours, what can we claim to know about how stories and myths guide change at a much more fundamental, perhaps even unconscious level?

We’ll be exploring these questions and more over the Summer, culminating in a gathering in September with author of The Myth Gap, Alex Evans from NYU’s Centre on International Cooperation. Express an interest in joining the debate by emailing



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