Corporate enthusiasm and Newsnight’s tired cynicism

Interesting posts over last few days from a couple of thoughtful leading figures in the social enterprise movement. Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), takes in the death of Steve Jobs and the party conference season while primarily focusing on the evolving relationship between social enterprise and (big) business. SEUK along with the School for Social Entrepreneurs and others, are about to move into a new social enterprise hub developed by accountants PwC at the Fire Station near London Bridge.

This is one of several signs of the growing affection between corporate giants and the social enterprise lobby. Holbrook is optimistic about these developments while recognising some potential objections from within the sector: “I understand many people are concerned that our sector might be used to ‘cleanse’ the image of tarnished business that continues to behave in greedy and selfish ways, but I genuinely believe that the tide is turning and the relationships we cultivate are assessed on the balance of net-gain for society and the sector. We have engaged the corporate ear and we must wisely use this opportunity to create the biggest and best impact for our world by challenging and changing usual business doctrines.”

He goes on to contrast positive engagement from big business with the less positive attitude of politicians: “Maybe it’s because we’re all in business that were beginning to build such productive relationships and understand how business needs to change. Business is getting this agenda much faster than many politicians – too many of whom see us as a peripheral, ideological and a marginal business sector.

Based on the current financial realities for social enterprise, that latter quote creates an impression of big business as the popular auntie and uncle who see the social enterprise kids a couple of days a year to take them to Disneyland while government represents the put upon parents who look after them all year round with nothing to show for it but resentment.

Politicians might not understand social enterprise to the same extent as enthusiastic business people but, currently, they do a lot more to pay for it. SEUK’s Fightback Britain report reveals that more than twice as many social enterprises (27%) have either state contracts or grants/core funding as their main source of income than trading with the private sector (13%), rising to 41%/10% for those with incomes of between £250,000 and £1,000,000.

This is not to say that Peter Holbrook’s essential message is wrong. It is vitally important that social enterprise and social enterprises engage with the private sector – both in terms of sustaining social enterprise and in terms of contributing the development of socially conscious business culture – but that we need to be aware of the position we’re starting from. Finding mutually beneficial ways for social enterprises to work with private sector businesses – large and small – is the right direction to be travelling in, the challenge is to find practical ways to make it work while also bearing in mind likely queries from Mike Chitty, amongst others, about the assumption that social enterprise necessarily has anything much to teach the mainstream private sector.

Elsewhere, Jess Steele of Locality, who is heading up the Community Organisers programme, reflects on the coverage of the scheme on Friday’s Newsnight. In these trying times for the Beeb, the package hardly amounted to a sterling defence of licence fee. Regular viewers may know that Newsnight has been running a regular Big Society slot in which Stephen Smith, the programme’s culture correspondent, is transformed into Citizen Smith – a man apparently attempting to destroy the government’s flagship scheme armed only with a tired pun on his name and a bumbling disinterest in his subject matter.

While previous episodes have looked at suitably uninteresting issues such as whether people should volunteer to maintain the council’s flower beds, Friday saw Smith’s (essentially good natured) spoof-foolishness directed at a £15 million scheme to stimulate positive social action in local communities – both a relatively small investment for a major national project but also the biggest single government in direct delivery of Big Society activity. As Steele suggests, the actual interviewees – both those trainee organisers interviewed at and after the first training event, and Civic Society minister, Nick Hurd – managed to come out of it looking well informed, sensible and, in the case of the organisers, an extremely good investment at £15,000 each for a year’s work.

Given that many of them are themselves facing looming redundancy, you would think BBC editors would understand that the challenges facing deprived communities as the state withdraws and the private sector doesn’t pick up the pieces are anything but a joke. There’s plenty of questions about what community organisers can do to tackle some of these challenges – and the likely limits to what they can do. It’s a shame that BBC’s quality news programme seemed more interested in getting a few cheap laughs that doing its research and asking those questions properly.

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3 responses to “Corporate enthusiasm and Newsnight’s tired cynicism

  1. I see a big problem ahead for the SEC which has roots in something which happened 5 years ago, when I became a member and introduced our efforts to leverage social enterprise in Ukraine, saying:

    “Our current work is focussed on Ukraine, where we’ve recently completed a 3 year research project to bring peer group lending and social purpose business in at a national level. We’re now being supported in the non-monetary context by local resources who are helping with language assistance and channelling the plan through to national government.

    We’re proposing a business mix of revenue positive and revenue neutral activities toward a major social objective, the funding of group care homes for all Ukraine’s economic orphans and street children. Our target for external seed funding will be the Millenium Challenge account for transitional democracy. Additionally we propose a new faculty for Social Enterprise in one of Ukraine’s state universities. ”

    In response I was told that this was beyond the current focus of the SEC’s work, and was referred to a list of other organisations who might help.

    We’d begun 10 years earlier as concept paper which challenged the assumption the the sole responsibility of business was to return investment to shareholders, offering an alternative to conventional capitalism. The same argument was presented earlier this year by Michael Porter at Harvard. Our work by then led to being the change. We invested our surplus in creating the strategy plan for Microeconomic Development and Social Enterprise, a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Ukraine By the following August was highly visible as two magazine article. We made the decision to do this to protect the IP from being hijacked. It is here that the reasoning for reforming capitalism became very prominent:

    As you may read, the primary focus was the plight of children abandoned to the state in conditions which resembled concentration camps. My colleague Terry died challenging first mafia and then his own government over this issue. He was stonewalled by the East Europe Foundation, representing USAID .

    We eventually discovered that the threat to our IP came not from organised crime, but from those we’d approached on our own side. Of the partnership described, all but PwC had been fully briefed and they presumably follow a due diligence process. .

    There you’ll find a link an article defining social enterprise by a “UK expert” which unlike the rest of the website, is published in Ukrainian. Notably our primary social objective has been removed along with the foremost pioneer of social enterprise in country.

    So where does that leave the SEC with regard to social enterprise?. Having failed to support a member’s international efforts which are brushed aside by government., they’re now in some form of partnership with those who’ve displaced us.

    Terry, like Steve Jobs might have extended his life with a liver transplant but as an American without medical insurance and without compensation for his work, was not in such a fortunate position. He deserves at least attribution for his considerable impact:–social-impact-report—march-2011_25.html


  2. Beanbags admin


    I might regret this but for readers – me included – who may not get round to following all the links and reading through in detail, what (briefly) is the IP you are saying has been taken from you?

    I assume you’re not saying you’d copyrighted the idea of doing social enterprise in Ukraine?


  3. We produced a copyright strategy plan which included a national scale social enterprise initiative and approached a number of organisations including the SEC for support. Three of them – East Europe Foundation, The British Council and Erste Bank later got together to produce their own version. PwC joined them.

    What I’m saying is that we invested 7 years in preparing the ground for this group who rather than work with us pushed us aside and brush the issue of children being farmed for profit by organised crime under the carpet/

    What we’d published in 2006 about a place called Torez drew the attention of the Sunday Times in February and concluded that “by our inaction, we are all guilty” . We were far from inactive.

    This is a scenario where the worst kind of business profits from human misery. If we appeal to government and big business to work with us and are just brushed out of the way, can we differentiate between business that does harm and that which avoids confrontation.

    According to the constitution of Ukraine, any resident has responsibility to act where the vulnerable are harmed, which was our justification for speaking out,



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