What on earth is SEUK doing

What on earth is SEUK doing
Geof Cox

The UK social enterprise movement has recently had to suffer the spectacle of a Regional Social Enterprise Partnership having to take Social Enterprise UK to court to get paid for work they had done on a Social Enterprise UK project. In the end, SEUK was forced to pay not only money owed to the Regional Partnership, but the legal costs as well.

But failing to pay what you owe raises not only legal, but also ethical questions.  A couple of years ago I took part in the Senscot AGM in Edinburgh, and was surprised by the passion with which business ethics were discussed in Scotland.  When was the last time you heard an English (or ‘UK’) social enterprise umbrella body talking about ethics?  And of course there is more at stake here than the ethics of one organisation failing to pay another – or even of a social enterprise body, whose business ethics should be exemplary, failing to pay its debts; this was a national social enterprise representative body failing to pay what should be one of it’s own regional partnership organisations.  What on earth was Social Enterprise UK doing?  Has it lost its way entirely?  How did it let what should have been (at worst) a disagreement within a spirit of partnership end up in court?

I leave these questions for others to answer – because for me there is an even more worrying aspect to this case.

The work SEUK failed to pay for was in the area of ‘social franchising’.  It is an area in which the Regional Partnership has played a leading role – and in particular, recently, in trying to recentre the social enterprise movement’s thinking about social franchising on – you guessed it – ethics!

There is profound disquiet among many of the most experienced social enterprise developers about the apparent tendency in some parts of the movement to accept uncritically big business approaches to intellectual property, rather than deal with the fundamentals of where the public interest is best served by openly sharing knowledge, and where it genuinely lies in franchise-style arrangements.

When is your interest in social franchising driven by conventional business imperatives – like your own organisation’s prestige and growth – and when is it actually the best way to extend your mission?

Is the idea of franchising applicable to social enterprise at all – given the respect I hope we all want to give to local differences, accountability and responsibility?

For me, the ground-breaking work on replication through sharing intellectual property is actually being done in the open source software movement – and by Social Enterprise Europe, through their Social Licensing concept, miEnterprise’s commonly owned network structures – which consciously reject conventional ideas on franchising and are trying to develop ethical social enterprise alternatives (currently funded, note, by the Scottish Government, but not in England) – and by the truly inspirational work of the Unicorn Grocery in Manchester.

You’ll look in vain for mention of these original and ethically based replication strategies in most of the national umbrella guidance on ‘social franchising’: so the questions raised by the recent court defeat of SEUK are not only about their wisdom and ethics as an organisation, nor just how their relationship with the Regions was alowed to get to this debacle, but at the deepest level, their actual understanding of social enterprise.