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.