I spent Monday and Tuesday managing the delicate balance between running a social enterprise and attending the major conferences where people talk about social enterprise.
Usually even the best social enterprises conferences feature 75% overly positive non-specific bullshit and 25% interesting discussion. This year’s Good Deals and Guardian Conference seemed different. While much of the bluster was still there and the flurry of exciting new financing models continues unabated, the underlying atmosphere was a bit less smug and bit more thoughtful. There seemed to be fewer gratuitous potshots at public sector bureaucrats and less about how social enterprise definitely was the solution to most (or all) of the world’s problems.
I think the main reason for this change in mood is that many leading figures in the social enterprise movement are worried. Some are worried that their organisations or many of the organisations they represent could go bust during the next 12 months, others are more generally peturbed at the possibility that social enterprises might really be saddled with the responsibility for filling the hole left by massive cuts in public services.
The biggest hint at this growing climate of fear was the fact that most platform speakers at both conferences were acknowledging that most social enterprises in the UK are really, really small. That’s not a major revelation but the fact that it’s being openly acknowledged by leading figures in the lobby and social finance world is a major shift from the years of “our surveys reveal that 110% of people are absolutely desperate for a social enterprise to collect their rubbish”.
As I pointed out on the Guardian’s new Social Enterprise Network last week, it’s Serco, Capita and friends who will be collecting your rubbish or giving you a parking ticket if the council isn’t. What most social enterprises will be expected to do is to provide the services they already provide to supplement or take the pressure off core public services with less resources than they’ve had previously.
This is likely to accentuate the practically massive but rhetorically under-discussed gap between third sector social enterprises – social enterprises that combine some trading with an enterprising approach to the delivery of (in reality, if not technically) grant-funded activities – and the few social enterprises that are real trading businesses. Aside, from the discussion of whether many social enterprises will be able to win commissioned contracts from councils or NHS agencies competing in a market with private companies, there’s the bigger issue of the services that will just stop being commissioned. Historic conference bluster aside, most self-defined social enterprises will be just unable as charities and other community groups to replace grant or commissioned income with trading activities.
Mixed in with the public funding debate is the question of the role of social enterprise in building The Big Society. While the government’s Big Society adviser and social entrepreneur, Lord Nat Wei, was at Good Deals comparing Big Society to the internet – people couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago how big the internet would be now, the Big Society will be really big in 2030 – lobby insiders suggest that, partly due to his penchant for bizarre metaphors, Wei is no longer on Number 10’s list of top Facebook friends and, while he may continue to advise for some time, that advice will politely ignored by the key decision makers in government.
It’s clear that The Big Society Bank, promoted by Civil Society minister Nick Hurd at both conferences, certainly will seek to make more cash available for investment in social enterprises (and others). What’s less clear is how the emerging Big Society models currently championed by ministers – mostly focused on reduced state support mixed with increased involvement of volunteers and unpaid unemployed people – will enable third sector social enterprises delivering uneconomic activities in the community to generate the cash to sustain their activities and pay the money back.
The good news for social enterprise at the end of 2010 is that both politicians and much of the general public no longer have faith in the public and private sectors to deliver the combination of economic social benefits that everyone wants. The looming bad news is that politicians may expect social enterprise to deliver what they other sectors don’t or can’t but with little or no resources.