The sector’s not for burning

“And where the bloody hell are the leaders of the so-called ‘social enterprise movement’ whilst all the hard won gains made over many years are being wiped out on the ground? They appear naive and way, way out of their depth. Dare they publicly take on a government which still pays most of their bills?”

Anyone who was previously uncertain about former Fifteen boss and Social Enterprise Ambassador, Liam Black’s view on the current performance of social enterprise leaders will now have had that uncertainty conclusively removed.

Before reaching that storming conclusion, Black makes a number of points that I strongly agree with. The central one being that there’s a massive gap between Big Society rhetoric about supporting organisations that help communities to help themselves and policy decisions that see organisations who’ve got a strong track record of successfully doing that go to the wall.

And while Black’s comparison between the work of a practically useful social enterprise under threat in the current climate and the work of social sector innovators may lean towards caricature: “His is not a sexy enterprise, it is not digital, he doesn’t get invites to drink white wine at Nesta or Big Society Network love-ins with the social innovation intelligentsia.” he is right to identify a climate in which it’s become easier to find funding to have exciting but often fairly abstract ideas about how to deliver positive change in the future than to get hold of the resources to actually help people right now.

That’s not the fault of Nesta or the Big Society Network – supporting new ideas is what they’re there for – but the social impact of new ideas generated is going to be greatly reduced if, by the time they’re ready to be rolled out, there are no delivery organisations left with the capacity and support within local communities to be able to do that. Volunteers will not plug that gap, as Social Enterprise London‘s Allison Ogden-Newton – who I assume is not amongst those Black believes to believes to be ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ – has consistently been pointing out for months and months.

Where I disagree with Black’s analysis is in his criticism of leaders of the social enterprise movement. Regular readers will know that I have a long track record of criticism of social enterprise over optimism – both in a general sense and in relation to the current government’s agenda. Here’s what I thought of last June’s post-election backslapping session with the new administration. Here’s my thoughts, just over a month later, when considered observers ought to have had a fairly clear idea of what was likely to happen next.

But given the situation as it is now I’m not sure what exactly Black would like leaders of the social enterprise movement to do. It is undoubtedly true that existing successful social enterprises are not receiving the resources they need to continue to deliver their much needed work. It’s also true that, whatever the Big Society Bank ultimately does do, it won’t provide investment on the scale necessary to deliver the level of new activity that politicians expect – and it won’t do anything at all to replace lost revenue from delivering contracts that the public sector is no longer commissioning.

I’m not sure how these unpleasant truths would be significantly altered by social enterprise leaders either publicly denouncing the government and/or setting themselves on fire on the steps of the Cabinet Office. Most of us are in social enterprise partly because we recognize that once governments have been (legitimately) elected and political decisions have been taken (with honourable intentions), there’s still an awful lot up for grabs in terms of what actually happens – and whether people get a relatively good deal or a relatively crap deal.

The challenge is to present a positive case for social enterprise and socially enterprising activity, while also highlighting the practical examples of what’s being lost and the impact on people if these losses are not prevented. I think Social Enterprise Coalition chief executive, Peter Holbrook, was right in his recent interview with this blog when he said of the public sector mutualisation drive: “I think we need to remain slightly agnostic about whether the government’s agenda is good or bad but, what we need to do is if this agenda is going to be driven forwards, is to make absolutely sure that we are mitigating the risks and maximising the chances for success.

This is also the right approach in a wider sense. If social enterprise in the UK is going to survive and (hopefully) thrive in the UK we’ve all got a responsibility to spread and amplify both positive messages about what could happen and message of caution about what could be destroyed.




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2 responses to “The sector’s not for burning

  1. Pingback: Start pedalling while Rome turns… « Nick Temple

  2. Pingback: Leadership in 2011 « Cosmic Ethical IT

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