Secret Social Entrepreneur – Definition is not important
Social enterprise is great and has grown, but I think it could have spread faster and done far more if we hadn’t tried to define it. Right now in a room somewhere a group of social enterprise advocates are wasting their time arguing about what social enterprise is. You can understand why "What is social enterprise?" is a question often asked, but after years of trying to pin it down the result has been confusion, stilted growth and dogged disagreement.
We attempt definitions because we want certainty and so we grab the social enterprise tape measure and try to describe something tangible. But social enterprise is an activity, not a thing. It constantly evolves, adapts and grows and so a degree of ambiguity is inevitable, indeed it is part of the attraction and dynamism of this social revolution.
Social enterprise is powerful, when you witness the transformation that happens when people do great things for their community by using business skills, you can appreciate how dynamic this new culture is. But try and talk to an entrepreneur about governance and you will see the light dull in their eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I know governance is important and can be a factor in determining growth, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, and it alone does not define social enterprise. I have come across mutuals and community interest companies behaving like big business and great social enterprises, delivering eye-watering social impact, that are director owned. Some social enterprises can only get off the ground when individuals borrow the money against their personal assets. Are we really going to tell these entrepreneurs they have no right to own their company?
I know people worry about those wolves gallivanting about in sheep’s clothing. When Emma Harrison called A4e a "social business", many took that as proof positive that without definition social enterprise would be exploited, taken advantage of, sullied even. Presumably A4e used the term to describe their activity because they work with the unemployed, but in the debacle that followed their shaky performance during the initial stages of the Work Programme I think it only piled on the pressure.
What A4e may have learnt from this was that by creating expectations that reality didn’t match, they set themselves up for a fall. When I am asked to define social enterprise, which I am almost daily, I offer this observation: if you walk like a duck and quack like a duck, you a probably a duck, but if you having problems persuading people you are a duck, you’re probably not.
I am aware that seems to trivialise something many hold dear, their definition, but I believe we should encourage more business-based social activity and observe rather than instruct the journeys of those brave and exciting entrepreneurs. Social enterprise is a melting pot from which anything might emerge. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what happens next.