27th October 2009

Do people in social enterprises actually know that they are running a social enterprise? I ask this question because recently I have read many articles where the writers tie themselves in knots trying to pen a definition.

Too many people have their own vision, which it would seem has to mirror their own organisation, and then seek to dismiss any other business which could quite legitimately call themselves a social enterprise. Some recent examples range from the “Red Tory” Philip Blond struggling on Newsnight to Liam Byrne who seems to suggest that the Labour party reinvents itself as a social enterprise.

How hard is it to create a definition which everyone can understand? Looking at the essential components:

– First and foremost it is an enterprise and therefore needs to be a legal body. If not it is a voluntary or community organisation which is related to but not necessarily the same thing as a social enterprise.

– It needs to trade in the widest sense of the word.

– Profits do not go to shareholders, partners or investors but back into the business for the benefit of the wider community.

Beyond this everything is negotiable in my view. Social enterprise is not the answer to all of our problems and has no monopoly on great thoughts and ideas. However what it does have as a massive “USP” is an ethos which understands that profit at any cost is not always desirable.

I feel fed up with the rather patronising and incredulous reactions from people when you explain that money and profit is not the sole way you measure success. However I place much of the blame for this attitude firmly in the lap of the sector itself. We are fractured, not sure of ourselves, shun success and perpetuate the myths surrounding the industry.

A good example of this is the recent SEEE (Social Enterprise East of England) “inTouch” magazine. Rarely have I felt such despair after reading something designed to help and showcase the industry. Patronising articles on Twitter, business cards and a “problem page” made me angry and realise that well meaning though the people may be that they have no idea of what is happening in the real world. It assumes that its constituents are grant hungry micro businesses with no skills and experience. Well that is not the case at NWES!

If you have not got the skills to run your own business then do not set up a social enterprise – go and work for someone who has or learn them before joining our throng. The overwhelming majority of people in our sector are well meaning but until they (and funders) realise that, by being good at business you will achieve your aims much quicker, we are destined to be peripheral and seen as laudable but insignificant.

I want to be a part of an industry making a real difference. It will have companies of all shapes and sizes which are well run and have a financial vision to match its social vision. At NWES we believe in sharing our expertise far and wide and have helped numerous individuals and organisations in this country and abroad – all for free. Despite this locally we are viewed with suspicion by some because we “are too big to be a social enterprise”, “make a surplus on trading”, “do not have grant income” – all of these are direct quotes.

What I do applaud is the initiative being run in conjunction with RBS which is the SE100. It is looking for those social enterprises that make and measure social impact, are growing and making a real difference. Have a look at www.se100.co.uk and see what a social enterprise really looks like!

We need more of ideas like this which showcase the best and encourage the rest if we are ever going to make social enterprise clearly understood by all. I am proud to be a “social entrepreneur” but would like to see many more of us around!

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