The important question then is whether the different organisational types will feel the need to describe themselves as social enterprises in the future, and whether there remains any value for governments and different organisational types in portraying a strategic unity around the social enterprise construct.
It’s been a big year for social enterprise. A year in which a government which needed social enterprise to fill the ideological void at the heart of its thinking, has been replaced by a government which needs social enterprise to at least help to fill the financial black hole at the heart of the nation’s budget (by delivering public services for cheaper than the public sector).
Some social entrepreneurs and most of the social enterprise lobby got really excited during June and July. With honourable exceptions, most of these people are feeling far less optimistic now. As someone who was sceptical about the ‘our time has come’ line that was so popular a few months ago, I’m almost as sceptical about the current climate of doom and gloom. As a citizen, I’m as worried as everyone else about what government agencies may or may not be able to deliver with reduced resources in the coming months and years but, as social entrepreneurs, I think it’s our duty to look at opportunities on offer to deliver positive social change and find ways to make the best of things.
The ‘important question’ quoted above is the one posed at the end Simon Teasdale’s paper What’s in a name? The Construction of social enterprise, published by the Third Sector Research Centre in September. Lurking behind this question is the stark reality that, as Ben Metz eloquently outlined in October, the strict definition wing of the social enterprise movement has, for better or worse, lost control of its own terminology. That process is not reversible in any positive way. It is possible (though not likely in the short term) that the idea of social enterprise will gradually go out of fashion. It’s virtually inconceivable that – as some within the movement still seem to hope – that social enterprise will both grow in popularity and narrow in definition. Without rehashing my general criticisms of the Social Enterprise Mark, readers can insert their own cliches related to putting genies back in bottles and horses bolting.
Teasdale’s question – whether ‘social enterprise’ will survive as even a broadly defined term for a type of organisation – isn’t a practically important one either for most people running social enterprises or for the people who are hopefully benefiting from their services – it’s likely that for most people the experience of: (a) receiving a service from, or working for, a charity or employee-owned not-for-profit company that operates in a social enterprising way, or (b) receiving a service from, or working for, an organisation that defines itself as a social enterprise, will be remarkably similar.
On the other hand, it’s a very important question for the social enterprise movement. As Teasdale outlines in his paper, while there’s always been (for hundreds of years, if not since business began) people carrying out trading activities for reasons beyond generating private profits, giving the label ‘a social enterprise’ to some of the organisations carrying out those activities has – in the UK, at least – been primarily a political decision, based on a particular set of recent political circumstances.
Those circumstance have now changed and, while the future for social enterprise (the activity) looks brighter than ever, it may be that for ‘the social enterprise’ (the noun) 2010 marks the beginning of the end.