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.