What do you do if your small business struggling? Funnily enough, it’s the same thing you do if your charity’s struggling; you turn it into a social enterprise. At least that’s what’s suggested to Greg, of KnowHow NonProfit‘s Mill Pot Café in episode one of their latest animated tale. Greg’s problem is that his dreams of happy customers knocking back cappuccinos on the tables outside the Café (and, in doing so, frothing up his bottom line) are in danger of being foiled by the disgruntled youth who hang around near the Café shouting rudeness (fairly quaint rudeness, KnowHow is a lottery-funded website) at the oldsters.
We’ll have to wait for the next installment to find out whether Greg and the youth can find a way to work together to simultaneously solve the problems of an over-supplied real market for warm beverage and snack provision and (in Millcaster, at least) an under-supplied socially-funded market for positive activities for young people. I like stories with a happy-ending so I hope they manage it but, when this stuff happens in real life, the results are usually gloomily predictable.
As mentioned towards the beginning of this paper, the last ten years (in particular) have seen the social enterprise lobby joining with the late New Labour government – to the mutual advantage of both – to promote the idea that social enterprises and social entrepreneurs can save the world with a unique, heady mix of saintliness and alchemy not to be found in any other sector. There’s no real evidence that this is true. It’s good that Greg of the Mill Pot Café and his fellow small business people are being encouraged to consider how they can help to make their local areas better places to live – beyond what they’re already attempting to do in offering goods and services to the community while creating employment for others – but it doesn’t follow that there’s necessarily any benefit (to either Greg or the community) from an attempt to set up an organisation defined as a social enterprise.
Social enterprise is not magic. In most cases, it involves taking the already difficult task of running a small business and making it harder by attempting to deliver something else (socially useful) through the process of running that business. Direct collision of social and economic goals – as with the Big Issue, where readers’ knowledge of the social benefits to the sellers directly drive the sales of the magazine – are fantastic but also very unusual.
Greg’s café won’t certainly won’t solve its commercial problems by adding on a ‘social’ activity – any more than all those charities who think (or, in many cases, have been told) that they can replace grants by doing a casual bit of trading activity in their spare time will end up doing anything other than subsidising those trading activities through reserves, donations and dwindling grants than they are to make money for them.
The blend of entrepreneurialism and social conscience that social enterprising offers can help – working alongside well-run charities, conventional businesses and the public sector – to change the world but in a climate where there’s probably no easy answers, social enterprise is definitely not an easy answer.