It’s not just regional social enterprise support agencies that are operating under the shadow of looming cuts. In fact, things are looking at least as bad, if not worse, for the Office for Civil Society(OCS)’s strategic partners. Discussions about impending reductions in cash available and the number of organisations sharing that cash seem to be side-stepping the – hopefully important – issue of what the sub-department formerly known as the Office of the Third Sector (OTS) gets for its current annual investment of £12.1 million in 40 umbrella-type organisations. What we do know is that Nick Hurd wants to cut this outlay to ‘a maximum of £7.5 million’ in funding to ‘a maximum of 15’ partners – and that none of these organisations should receive more than 25% of their income through the programme. This suggests that Mr Hurd thinks nearly 40% of whatever it is is not very useful.
Social Enterprise magazine’s report highlights that Social Firms UK currently receives over 25% of its income through the programme but – certainly on the basis of its latest available accounts – this has until recently also been the case for the Social Enterprise Coalition which, in the year ending 2009, received £562,829 out of a total income of £1,969,532 for being a strategic partner. This amounted to over 28% of its income and – taking into account the Coalition’s role in delivering Social Enterprise Ambassadors programme – does not even represent the full extent of the Coalition’s financial dependence on the OTS/OCS let alone its dependence on funding from the state in a general sense.
As an organisation which, unlike regional agencies, doesn’t focus on delivering services directly to members and generates just £101,879 (or just over 5%) of its income from membership fees, it’s not surprising that the Coalition has operated more as a Quango than a membership organisation.
It has been very successful in pushing social enterprise as an idea to the top of the policy agenda – including partnering with Labour ministers to push the ludicrous idea that most people want public services delivered by social enterprises despite not knowing what social enterprises are – but spectacularly unsuccessful in leading the development of an actually existing movement able to tackle the challenges posed by the current economic situation.
The Coalition first persuaded New Labour politicians that social enterprise fitted in with their political agenda, then got stuck into the job of raising public consciousness about the the version of social enterprise that those politicians supported. The nadir of this approach was the launch of the Capacitybuilders-backed Social Enterprise Mark. Without rehashing the many practical criticisms of the Mark, the Coalition is ultimately responsible for the fact that the entire project was developed on a flawed premise – that what the social enterprise movement most needed was for more of the general public to know what social enterprise (or a social enterprise) is.
The Coalition’s own very good research shows that only 12% of social enterprises consider this to be an important issue for them. An organisation focused on supporting a movement rather than a reciprocal lobbying agenda would’ve looked into this beforehand.
The problem for the Coalition – a problem for all organisations – is that they’ve taken money for stuff that the then government wanted to pay for. And what (quite shortsightedly) the then government wanted to pay for was a lobbying organisation promoting the idea of social enterprise and not a membership organisation supporting the development of a social enterprise movement.
The result is that – at a national level – social enterprises do not have a membership organisation to represent their interests in the way that the CBI represents big business or NAVCA represents community groups but then we – social enterprises as opposed to taxpayers – haven’t paid for one.
So what happens next. It would be a shame if the OCS strategic partnership review leads to organisations such as the Coalition keeping funding for lobbying activities at the expense of smaller sub-sector bodies such as Social Firms UK than actually help grassroots organisations to create employment and organisations such as SSE that help social enterpreneurs to do social enterprise in a more general sense. Not least because the best way for people to find out what social enterprise is in a meaningful is for there to be more social enterprises carrying out useful activities in the community, and employing them, their friends and family.
In the current economic circumstances, a smaller Coalition, less dependent on state funding and less beholden to government agendas could become a more independent voice for social enterprises, helping them to tackle the practical issues they face – and ultimately be more useful to both the government and the social enterprise movement.