Anyone who knows their Old Testament will know the story of Moses, who followed God’s orders to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, spent a very, very long time walking round and round in circles then, having got his people close to where they were going, finally caught a glimpse of the promised land.
It’s a hard time to be a leading figure in the social enterprise lobby. Having spent nearly ten years following New Labour’s commandments, particularly ‘Thou shalt never allow the facts to get in the way of a mutually beneficial political story’, the social enterprise movement is now approaching (what some regard as) the promised land of The Big Society. More diligent Bible students will worry about what might happen next.
It’s not that the coalition government specifically hates social enterprise support, it just doesn’t like the structures and funding streams that used to pay for it. It’s easy to knock regional development agencies or programmes to support the development of third sector infrastructure – they don’t perform many live-saving operations and have no direct role in emptying anyone’s bins – and it’s proved equally easy to cut them.
While some regional support agencies, such as Social Enterprise London, boast expertise that means their consultancy services are in high demand from councils and health service agencies looking to spin out services into new social enterprise structures, most face a future without any funding that will enable them to provide services to members, unless those members can pay for those services directly at close to market rates. Some in the sector may see this as being broadly a good thing but it’s definitely not great news for small social enterprises and early stage social entrepreneurs.
The picture looks even bleaker for national umbrella body, The Social Enterprise Coalition (SEC) – possibly because the activity it’s carried out most successfully since its inception is lobbying the government, and the new government may not see the need to foot a relatively hefty bill for an organisation to lobby it.
With tough times looming, the SEC leadership is clearly hoping to bolster the organisation’s claim to be representative of the sector. They are currently advertising two jobs – immediate start preferred – that run between now and the end of April (this April). One involves overseeing Voice 2011 (the organisation’s flagship national conference, taking place in March), along with three other projects. The other involves recruiting 500 new members in the next three months. Given that SEC currently has less than 400 members in total, recruited over the course of nine years, this is a fairly ambitious target.
While my organisation are SEC members, I’ve always been, at best, a highly critical friend of their approach to many issues – particularly the Social Enterprise Mark. But we do need a social enterprise umbrella body and SEC is the one we’ve got. The months ahead are crucial ones in determining the kind of social enterprise lobby and support structures we’ll have in place as we face the challenges of actually delivering on some of the promises that the movement has spent the last decade making.
As social entrepreneurs we have to make the case for the support and representation we want, as well as making the case to the government has to at least provide some cash to fund it.