Social enterprise: staying vigilant in the spotlight

Social enterprise: staying vigilant in the spotlight
Peter Holbrook, Social Enterprise Coalition
05.05.10

While it is truly a milestone to have social enterprise in all major party manifestos, we must not forget that no matter what the outcome of the General Election, social enterprise is not and never will be a political construct. The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats have incorporated social enterprise into many of their key policies, and while that is a real win for the movement, added exposure inevitably creates some misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Greater public awareness is something that we in social enterprise have long been striving for, and the recent attention is certainly evidence of how far we have come. In fact, the last time there was an election, social enterprise was barely on the radar at all.

But now the challenge is to be vigilant to ensure that the discourse on social enterprise is not distorted by the next government’s ambitions and policies around it. Social enterprise is teetering on the brink of public understanding – if the perception of it gets tied up with government policy or a narrow interpretation of what it is, it could set us back years.  There are actions government can take to support social enterprise and remove the barriers that hinder it (which the Social Enterprise Coalition has outlined in our manifesto); but fundamentally, social enterprises operate independently of government.

So why does the perception of social enterprise need such vigilance? Because it is a diverse movement working in almost every industry in the UK on a hugely varying scale, and while complexity is what makes it so interesting, it’s also what makes it at times hard for people to grasp.

At its simplest, it is a way of doing business that seeks to benefit communities, consumers, employees and the environment. It’s about reinvesting profits and not dividing them amongst external shareholders. It’s about grassroots entrepreneurialism on both large and small scale, and being transparent and accountable to customers and the general public. Individuals and entrepreneurs play an important role, but so do communities – and communities in a broader sense than just geographic.  

The Conservatives have perhaps brought social enterprise into the brightest light during this campaign, as they form a significant part of their ‘Big Society’ plan.  Some of the backlash against that plan has said that social enterprises are presented as a panacea for everything from social ills to a shrinking budget and poor public service outcomes.

Social enterprises are not panaceas, and they’re not perfect – they will have their ups and downs like any business. However, there are already thousands of successful social enterprises in existence all over the UK. Whatever form they take, they are based on the principles of mutualism, coproduction and participation and as such they offer an organisational form that is accountable and gives people a voice – and this is the important part – should they wish to use it.

What has gotten lost in the debate is that social enterprises do not impose action on people who do not want to take it, but they do encourage the voices of those who do. And as businesses that are often set up in response to a community’s needs or desires, they are the furthest thing from ‘top down’ as you can get.  

For instance, Divine Chocolate, the Fairtrade chocolate company, is unique in that it is part-owned by the farmers in Ghana who produce the raw cocoa. They get both financial benefits from the business and involvement in decision making. Kuapa Kokoo is the name of the farmers’ co-op, and it has more than 40,000 members across 1,300 villages – the impact to their lives is real and measurable.

There is also the Jericho Foundation, visited by David Cameron during the campaign, which started in 1993 as a drop-in centre for the most disadvantaged people in Birmingham. Today Jericho runs a number of businesses in landscaping, design, construction and other industries that provide work experience for people who need it most. Both Divine and Jericho are about a different way of doing business – one that operates from a core social mission.

Making these organisations a bigger part of our economy as well as encouraging them to have a greater role in public service delivery is important because social enterprise offers alternative way of doing business that is based on greater transparency and accountability. 

All three main parties have endorsed social enterprise. So how do we encourage take-up and support from the next government while at the same time remaining clear about who we are and what we do? One clear answer is the new Social Enterprise Mark, a national initiative that is co-owned by the Coalition and RISE, the social enterprise support body in the South West.  The Mark is a visual badge awarded to businesses that meet key criteria for social enterprises, and I hope that in the next few years, we have thousands of social enterprises using the Mark.

Social enterprise has the potential to make a considerable difference to the economy, our communities and the environment, and both governmental support and public awareness can help us reach that potential. But what we in the movement must strive to do is ensure that the principles of social enterprises are not lost, and that people understand the full breadth of social enterprise.