Reflections on Senscot’s AGM: Things really can be different.

Reflections on Senscot’s AGM:  Things really can be different.
By Barry Knight


There are three reasons why the social enterprise sector in Scotland is the envy of the world. First, there is the impressive array of non-profit enterprises, social firms, and community philanthropies. Second, there is the quality of the infrastructure set up to support the development of the sector. Third, there is the Scottish Government, acting contrary to worldwide trends, to open up space for civil society and to encourage the use of the third sector in public service contracts.


Here are six thoughts from my talk that might be helpful as the sector moves forward:


1. Things can change. Policy is often contingent on key individual ministers and civil servants who can move on. In 2008, I wrote how British government policies were killing the third sector with kindness. In England, the method is different now.


2. Independence is crucial. The much maligned CENTRIS Report, published in 1993, suggested that public service delivery undermines the the third sector’s role in developing societal change.  Now – South of the Border – taking government money means you can’t even advocate for changes in government policy.


3. Government don’t do development well. Generations of government area based programmes have had little effect.  For half a century, the West End of Newcastle has been a laboratory for such programmes, yet poverty is as bad as ever. The 10-year Neighbourhood Renewal Programme covering 88 local authorities was a failure and was shut down early.


4. Offer an alternative. The pioneers of social enterprise had a vision in which local people built power through institutions they owned. Their thinking was based on writers such as Paulo Frière and Ivan Illich, as well as the values of equality, dignity and inclusion found in the Civil Rights Movement.  The key word is ‘power’.


5. Scaling up doesn’t work. The pioneers were also influenced by Schumacher’s Small is beautiful which argued that people come first in economic development.  Institutions should be inclusive and intimate. A recent study by the Global Fund for Community Foundations suggests an inverse correlation between size of organisation and amount of social capital generated.  The last thing we need is yet another cold bureaucracy.


6. Create the demand chain. Developing social enterprise as part of the supply chain is the wrong way around for people-led development.  A participant at the AGM wrote to me afterwards:


‘Looking at my notepad of the AGM I started with a quote from Pauline Graham to the effect that the role of the social enterprise sector was to contribute to the effectiveness of public provision but ended up turning it on its head.  We need to be challenging the public sector to contribute to the effectiveness of community action and the promulgation of its values and reach.’


Exactly right! To end poverty, we must invert the power pyramid.  Let’s use our power, skills and knowledge to help government to design a demand-led programme to do this.