Sell things for goodness sake

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while will know that I haven’t always been in agreement with the approach of leading organisations in the social enterprise lobby. For much of the 2005-2010, the organisation then known as the Social Enterprise Coalition – now Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) – seemed to me to be concentrating on promoting the message that the general public were simultaneously unaware that social enterprise existed and overwhelmingly keen for as much of the public sector as possible to be run by social enterprises.

This message annoyed me a lot. Partly because it had, at best, an arms length relationship with reality but more importantly because it was a line that suited the interests of a few large public service delivering social enterprises, and the vast armies of social enterprises advisers and consultants that were directly and indirectly bankrolled by New Labour, but seemed to be of very little use to the vast majority of people trying to run social enterprises or relying on them to deliver goods and services.

That’s not to say that social enterprises running public services is a bad thing or that people who devoted their energies to promoting the idea were evil or even wrong to do so. I think social enterprises can play a positive role in delivering public services and SEUK and regional support agencies have provided (and continue to provide) vital support to help make that happen. The problem is that the lobby, in concert with the New Labour government, gave the impression that delivering public services was the main thing that social enterprises did. So much so that many people worried about the outsourcing of public services came to see ‘social enterprise’ as a euphemism for privatisation.

The result was that except for when they were being used as examples in bizarre outbursts of crossover spin along the lines of ‘CafeDirect’s successful fairtrade coffee company provides a clear illustration of why your council’s swimming pools should be run by a social enterprise’, the idea of social enterprises actually selling goods and services to people in the open market was relegated to the sidelines as the movement’s leaders battled for the soul of the public sector.

It’s important to note that this approach was successful on its on terms. During the New Labour era, the lobby did put social enterprise on the map but it was map of government offices and town halls. Depending on your interpretation, the Society Profits campaign, launched by SEUK this week, is either a natural progression from the successful promotion of social enterprise as a way of delivering public services and/or part of a long overdue attempt to promote a role for social enterprise in the rest of the economy. In these challenging times, it’s probably best to split the difference and agree that it’s the right thing to be doing right now.

As SEUK, Chief Executive, Peter Holbrook, explained in an interview with this blog a few months ago: “We need to connect with consumers; we need to support people to develop products that can be sold both locally and internationally because that really truly is diversifying income. We have to absolutely create a consumer revolution not just a political revolution. And actually that’s safe from political contamination. If we can connect directly with consumers, not only can they become investors and buyers, they can also choose to work in social enterprise and support social enterprise in myriad different ways. So that’s really the next big ambition for the social enterprise movement.

The stated aims of the Society Profits campaign are:

  • More people buy from social enterprise
  • More people are aware of social enterprise
  • More social enterprises identify themselves and promote the social enterprise message
  • More people and organisations engage with the social enterprise movement

This is significant in at least two ways. One is that is convincing people to buy stuff from social enterprises is at the top of the list. Too often, it’s seemed that the goal of leading proponents of social enterprise (including many social entrepreneurs themselves) was to get as many people as possible to like the idea of social enterprise and, if they actually bought something from a real life social enterprise, that was a bonus.

The other significant development is the goal of getting more people and organisations to engage with the social enterprise movement. Engaging with a movement is something quite different from liking or supporting an idea. This aim recognises that most social enterprises start out with the significant disadvantage of not having any money and that the best way to tackle that problem is to ensure that as many people and organisations as possible (or as is useful) want to play an active, practical role in what you’re doing because it’s important to them and/or the wider community.

I fully support both the intentions of the campaign and the simple, effective delivery of it. The key note of caution is that SEUK’s hard-working leadership and communications teams can provide sensible strategies and useful promotional materials to amplify a message but they aren’t responsible for making social enterprises produce and deliver products and services that people want to buy. That, now more than ever, is the challenge.


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7 responses to “Sell things for goodness sake

  1. David, Until now I hadn’t realised how deeply embedded this public sector mindset was in social enterprise. It certainly explains much of the apparent resistance to what I call ‘profit for purpose’ from within the sector.

    The tipping point seems to have been ‘Creating Shared Value’ when Harvard, a mainstream business school began saying it was OK for business to have a social purpose.

    Even Ed Miliband is now making the call for ethical capitalism.

    Harvard has been one of the leading advocates for laissez faire capitalism and it was the catastrophe of their Russia Project which had offered the opportunity to suggest turning ‘trickle down’ on its head, place credit in the hands of those needing it most, do it locally. and replicate on a national basis.


  2. Beanbags admin

    Well, Jeff, I’m not so sure that I’ve noticed an active resistance to ‘profit for purpose’ but, in most cases, that isn’t what people starting social enterprises have been encouraged to pursue.

    For example, there are many successful trading co-ops that have been going for over 20 years – and much of the social enterprise development business does have its routes in the co-operative movement – but the most of the funding provided by New Labour in the 2000s wasn’t designed to support the creation of new trading co-ops, it was designed to support social enterprises at the ‘charities delivering services’ end of the spectrum.

    I’m not arguing that all social enterprises should be co-ops but the creation of trading business operating in the mainstream market wasn’t the kind of social enterprise development that New Labour wanted to support – and social enterprise leaders followed the funding.


  3. Thanks for a very interesting article David. I’m generally in agreement and all for more ethical mainstream profit-making business, so your pointing to the underlying ‘charities delivering public services’ model is very helpful. However, how do you feel about the overtly consumerist message of the SEUK campaign? In the context of the economic and social problems we’re having, if the problem is (in part at least) “spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need”, then can “buy more stuff (but from nicer people)” really be the solution?


  4. 100% agreed. Social enterprise at national lobbying level became fixated on grants and awards from central government, which started to use them more and more as the latest tactic in Whitehall’s 30-year attack on service delivery under councils and other public bodies, and began to link movement in this direction to the grant chasing second tier bodies were engaged in.

    A movement which seemed to me to have great potential to be an agent of transforming private sector capitalism became focussed on delivering public services; this presaged the general shift in which an economic crisis caused by neo-liberalised capitalism became an opportunity for massive cuts and re-organisation of the public sector which saved the banks and insurance companies from collapse.

    This was always ill-fitting in social enterprise, as the point seemed to be that social enterprise was a way in which capitalism could be done in a way which made a solid and positive contribution in the way in which it related to its customers, employees and wider society at the point of production, consumption and after those exchanges by the way in which it used its surpluses.

    I think there’s a role for co-operatives in public service delivery, as democratic control is essential to retain the sense of the public that public services must have if they are to faithful to their mission, but its incredibly worrying if they’re seen as nice ways to privatise, or seen as ways to deliver the rump of services which are left after capital-rich private companies have outbid co-ops and social enterprises for the cherries of the public sector. Critical to that has to be medium-term contracts and asset locks (see Will Davies fantastic work on this, and an excellent report from Unison on mutualising public service delivery).


  5. “the point seemed to be that social enterprise was a way in which capitalism could be done in a way which made a solid and positive contribution in the way in which it related to its customers, employees and wider society at the point of production, consumption and after those exchanges by the way in which it used its surpluses.”

    Precisely @theboyler.and yes David, encouraged to the extent of not wanting to admit other interpretations. Consumer coops have been trading for more than 150 years as an alternative, a defence against industrial capitalism, rather than making capitalism an instrument for change.

    How profit (or surplus) is used for the benefit of people, is however something which resonates outside the world of social enterprise, as indicated by the UN General Assembly and the Vatican:


  6. Beanbags admin

    @pascale Well, if we’re going to have the ethical profit-making business you support, they’re going to have to sell goods and services. The consumerist message isn’t a problem for me because I’m not an anti-consumerist – certainly not in the case of food, clothing and the opportunity to travel (which seem to be the things being specifically promoted in the campaign). I think it’s about how we consume and certainly social enterprises should aspire to deliver products and services that are as sustainable as possible – both economically and environmentally.

    @theboyler I think, in terms of public services, social enterprise does potentially offer an opportunity to reinvigorate the public service ethos outside of the siege mentality that’s beset local authorities in particular. I’ll be interested to read what Unison has to say about mutualisation.


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