Roll-out will help more social enterprises make their mark

Roll-out will help more social enterprises make their mark
Paula Howley, new start mag

The Social Enterprise Mark, a label to show that organisations trade for a social or environmental benefit, celebrates its first birthday on 29 November.

It’s currently operating in south-west England, where it’s managed by Rise, but has gathered support for it to be made available nationwide. People across the country have signed a petition, and social enterprises and their networks have expressed a keen desire to use it.

This growing demand is supported by research from the Office of the Third Sector which shows social enterprise is in need of a recognisable identity.

The fact that social enterprises are using a c6mmon identifier is a real innovation. And as with any new idea, it can take a bit of explaining. Individual social enterprises have needed time to understand the concept of the mark and the decision- making process can be an extended one.

As well as providing evidence that they generate 50% of their income from trading proving that profits are invested for the benefit of the environment or society more widely, and legally structured to protect the assets for their social or environmental aims, social enterprises often need to consult with their membership or board of directors.

These eligibility criteria are really important; and are epitomised in the strapline ‘trading for people and planet’. During the mark’s year-long development phase we established exactly what message should be communicated. However, this has brought inevitable debate. The mark builds on the government’s definition of social enterprise. Not everyone is happy with this definition, but it has been around for a long time and itself was the result of detailed consultation.

It’s time we move on from debating definitions and get on with the enormous job of communicating with customers. While we continue to debate among ourselves, the world is passing us by.

Deciding which organisations are eligible for the mark is done through an independently-assured process. This has become a real cornerstone, giving credibility to social enterprises and their customers alike. All applications are put to our independent panel for approval, which includes representatives from the regional development agency, firms of accountants and solicitors, the NHS, a university and Consumer Focus (the new name for the National Consumer Council). This rigorous process means that to date 14 organisations are successfully using the mark.

A variety of reasons have been given for doing so. The Pierian Centre is a community interest company -isn’t that the brand for social enterprises? ‘No’, states June Burrough, founder and director of the centre, ‘we want to show that social enterprise legal structures vary according to the needs of the organisation. But what unites social enterprises is that they all genuinely want to benefit society, as a priority over generating profits solely for shareholders or owners. We are just one kind of a range of organisations that aspire to use the Social Enterprise Mark.’

This has been proven to be true. Holders include development trusts, community transport businesses, companies limited by guarantee, social firms and cooperatives.

Building confidence among customers and other stakeholders and helping them understand they are not a charity are among the reasons social enterprises want to use the mark. Another says: ‘We want to differentiate the way we work from corporate social responsibility and ‘greenwash”.

Size or sector is not an issue. From smaller organisations providing help with drug and alcohol recovery (Bosence Farm Project), to larger ones providing employment for people with disabilities (Pluss), all want to make the same statement about why they trade: for people and planet. Who your customers are isn’t an issue. Mid- Devon Community Recycle and South Molton Recycle mostly contract with local authorities, and Devon Doctors contracts with the NHS -while social enterprises like Eden Project, Cooperative Group and Pierian Centre trade more with the general public.

Many more applications are being processed and Rise expects to have more than 200 holders by its second birthday. For the immediate future, Rise will continue to build the mark in the southwest, while planning for the national roll-out.

For the mark to be available nationally, it needs investment -like the fair trade identity did when it began. We have the support of a number of partners and are talking to funders and business planning to make it happen. It’s really starting to gain momentum. We expect holders to reach a critical mass in 2009, and to reach a turning point for the sector, where social enterprises stand together and become so much stronger. Now is the time to stand up and be counted, the Social Enterprise Mark needs your support.