Meeting the corporates

Don Draper: It’s your job. I give you money, you give me ideas.
Peggy Olson: And you never say thank you.
Don Draper: That’s what the money is for!

While this (bit of a) scene from popular TV drama, Mad Men, may (possibly) be an example of management approaches to staff development in the US advertising industry in the 1960s, attititudes in the UK business world today are quite different. So different, in fact, that corporate giants and other household names are currently falling over themselves and each other to give their employees opportunities to engage with social enterprise.

On Thursday, I attended Social Enterprise London‘s Meet the Corporates event. It was well attended (in fact, standing room only) and included a presentation from Claire Bench, who is managing the Deloitte Social Innovation Pioneers Programme. The Deloitte programme will see the company: “showcase up to 50 socially innovative businesses from across the UK and provide them with a package of support to help them mainstream, go to scale and become investment-ready.

When asked why the company had launched the initiative, Bench explained that part of the reason was that it was ‘a huge skills development opportunity for our people’ that provided an exciting contrast with their day-to-day work.

Also getting in on the act are popular ice cream makers Ben & Jerry’s, whose Join Our Core competition launched last week. The company are wisely ignoring calls to launch a new flavour called ‘Social Enterprise Definition’ (a confusing mix of broadly similar flavours producing a bitter aftertaste) and instead offering aspiring social entrepreneurs the chance to win cash prizes and the chance to be featured on a Ben & Jerry’s tub.

Elsewhere in the corporate world, 2011 saw professional services experts, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), affirm their long-standing interest in social enterprise when they opened The Fire Station – home to the social enterprise restaurant, Brigade,  and the new base for Social Enterprise UK and the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE). SSE themselves have just formed a new partnership with the part-nationalised Lloyds Banking Group, and fellow bankers Santander have launched their own Social Enterprise Development Awards.

Aside from these initiatives – and I’m sure there’s several others – there’s no shortage of corporate-sponsored and delivered workshops for social enterpreneurs, along with corporate mentoring facilitate by organisations including Business in the Community.

Beyond the staff development angle, it’s not yet clear what all this means for social enterprise or, for that matter, for the corporate sector. In the short term, at least for those social enterprises based in London – I’d be interested to hear how well publicised these initiatives are elsewhere in the country (most of them are available outside London) – it seems that the gap left by state-backed support for social enterprise is being partially* filled by corporate support.

One possible consequence of this shift is that it will fundamentally change the types of social enterprises that emerge and grow over the next ten years as opposed to the last ten. While the broadly liberal approach to what it means be a social enterprise (or social business) from many in the corporate world is one issue here, it’s less important that the fact that growing numbers of new social entrepreneurs will start out – or begin to grow their businesses significantly – guided by input from corporate employees.

We may have a situation where the ability to win a corporate-sponsored social enterprise competition will become as important to social entrepreneurs (if not more so) than the ability to convince someone working for the local council to support their idea. It’s certainly possible that this development will lead to more exposure and support for social enterprises driven by charismatic individuals whose personal stories make good copy (and many of whom also deliver positive social change). It’s equally possible that a consequence will be growing numbers of social enterprises that actually break even or better by selling goods or services.

Either, neither or both could happen but, either way, the UK social enterprise movement is moving – at least to an extent – in a new direction.

*Readers in the social enterprise support world please note the word ‘partially’.


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23 responses to “Meeting the corporates

  1. David

    I am not aware that any of this London-centric corporate or banking sector support. has reached the north, or Scotland in a noticeable way.

    It may ripple out over the next few months.



  2. scumboni

    Interesting take on the event, David. I was interested to hear Claire Bench explaining Deloitte’s interest in social enterprise as (reductively) an employee engagement and loyalty exercise for its staff.

    For me, as an old hand business referral blagger from a mature social enterprise with a good , it was opportunity to talk to a room full of people about Calverts business offer (even if obliquely), and set up some potentially profitable meetings with people who have buying power of the kind one doesn’t often get to talk to on equal terms. I try and avoid those heavily stage-managed ‘meet the buyer’-type procurement events, where CEOs get to flaunt their social goals credentials without having to get their hands dirty by doing much – if any – actual business. They make me depressed.

    When Allison O-N said social enterprises have to learn about the culture of mainstream business, I think I know what she meant. I felt some of the less experienced social entrepreneurs in the room would likely have gone away knowing about as much about how ‘corporates’ could be of utility to them as they did when they arrived. The one thing I keep wanting to say to them is: these kind of meetings are potentially incredibly valuable to your business, you just have to work out how, and focus on coming out of the room with something tangible. Let’s be clear that the corporates come to these meetings because they’ve got something they want to sell – whether it’s corporate reputation and access to innovative businesses (Deloitte) or advocates who will bring more business accounts (Unity Bank). You sure went away knowing what they wanted from you – but did they go away knowing what you want from them? If not, why not? These exchanges should not be a one-way street, and the only way you get confidence and clarity in these kinds of situations is by just swallowing the butterflies, identifying likely people, going up to them and and asking them for something. You get better at it, and it works.

    Respect to SEL for putting on the event. Calverts’ £50 fee to be part of the SEL business network was worth it for just one opportunity like that.

    By the way, did you or anyone else talk to or hear from the KPMG guy? I spoke to him briefly before the meeting proper, but would have liked to hear what he (as head of procurement, rather than a CSR/social goals/HR person) thinks the problems and opportiunities are for both sides.


  3. David, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that P-CED didn’t qualify as a social business pioneer – in spite of being a pioneer of the self-sustaining business approach to social innovation. I now expect to see a replica presented in our place.

    Interestingly, a Grameen partner was one of those I’d approached in 2010 with our proposal for a social enterprise centre in Ukraine. You’ll find the introduction, which led to an exchange of email on a web page with the deeply ironic title of ‘Business based on Trust’.

    Later that year we learned that they’d joined up with two other organisations we’d approached – the East Europe Foundation (USAID) and The British Council in a social enterprise initiative in Ukraine. PwC had joined them.

    Our first approach to EEF had been late in 2007 on their arrival in Ukraine which we took as a response to our call on US government for support :

    “It is proposed that the United States of America be actively engaged in supporting this project, financially and any other way possible. Ukraine has clearly demonstrated common will for democracy. Ukraine has also unilaterally taken the first critical step to fulfill this program, thus clearly demonstrating initiative and commitment to participation required in the original Marshall Plan sixty years ago. The US side is presumably attempting to foster democracy in another country, which never expressed much interest and shows little real interest now. That of course is Iraq, where recent estimates indicate a cost of $1.5 billion per week.”

    They were offering small grants to community enterprises and we’d wanted to develop the first of 400+ rehab centres pledged by Ukraine’s government. This was the first impact of the ‘Marshall Plan’ paper which had reasoned the case for tackling the problems in institutions for disabled children which had been described in our 2006 report as ‘Death Camps. For Children’. This was the article which had been endorsed in the BT Better World campaign of 2008 as an ‘Example of Excellence’.–Death-Camps–For-Children/525.html

    Realising after 4 months that we were being stonewalled gave reason for the communication entitled ‘Genesis’ in February 2008. It called on USAID and The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for support “helping establish an alternative form of capitalism, where profits and/or aid money are put to use in investment vehicles with the singular purpose of helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people”.

    It was a little too much to bear when soon after Terry Hallman’s death and the ‘Death Camps’ issue brushed aside, Dr Rajiv Shah described the need to embrace enlightened capitalism.

    It was time for a reminder of ‘Genesis’


  4. Almost a year ago BITC published an article on ‘The Business Case for Responsible Business’ which to me was very familiar territory. I’d attempted to connect with them unsuccessfully in the past and when the Mayday network launched, saw the opportunity to try again.

    The Mayday network requests the story of a member’s ‘journey’ and it is soon apparent that they have no interest in publishing such information. It’s another of those networks where there’s the opportunity to engage but nobody seems to take it. No interest there in social enterprise I concluded

    Then I discovered something which took me aback. BITC and the British Council are donors to the East Europe Foundation, the organisation that has no budget for ‘retarded children’. Funding from both UK government and UK business was being used to paint us and more importantly the plight of these children, out of the picture,

    The BITC pitch for responsible business had been influenced by the ‘Creating Shared Value’ concept of Harvard professor, Michael Porter, though the same reasoning could be found in our work going back 15 years. In her blog, Allison O-N began referring to CSV in the context of the Transition Institute last November. I asked her, why they were quoting the hypothesis of an American professor when the real thing came from a social enterprise in London who’d introduced it to SEL in 2004.

    The word ‘showcase’ is used by Deloitte to describe what they intend to do with social innovators. It had been used in the same context by Gordon Brown calling on business in 2008 to showcase social initiatives.

    Showcases are all that we’re going to get – along with the dishonesty which absorbs intellectual property without attribution and brushes aside human rights issues which are too challenging.


  5. I think it’s fair to say that most businesses operate out of self interest and the corporate world could be said to take the lead in this respect. It’s difficult to deny that the interest of the corporate world in supporting social enterprise is a good thing but there is another side to this story as I think Jeff rightly points out. The self interest of the corporate world in it’s relationship to social enterprise and charity is in brand reputation and development first and foremost and is a slightly extended form of more traditional CSR work. Most CSR people I’ve met were switched from the marketing department. Workforce development and staff retention (most people desire to do good) is another factor. Corporates allowing staff to work with social enterprise and charity is fairly new and could be a passing fad, time will tell. The large corporate businesses now supporting social enterprise have been part of, if not major players in, the current economic situation wherein the gap between rich and poor is at its greatest since the great depression of the thirties. In the brave new world of the future envisaged by the social enterprise movement many of the corporates businesses that are now providing support would not exist in their present form. So we could argue that corporate business and social enterprise business are natural enemies. We could certainly argue that in the end social enterprise wishes to destroy the current form of corporate enterprise. It is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that a corporate business might support the growth of good business ideas developed initially by well intentioned social entrepreneurs and then hijack them at some point and revert them to the status quo which that corporate business is a part of. It could be argued that their primary corporate self interest is in maintaining the status quo and that their support for social enterprise is merely an attempt to dilute it. This might seem like a cynical view but in a debate or discussion around the involvement of corporate business in the support of the social enterprise movement it is a view that needs to be considered in my opinion.


  6. David, thanks for featuring the SEL Meet the Corporates event. You are right there is a growing trend towards more than just the CSR but commercial side of larger firms becoming interested in social enterprise. Some of this interest comes from the need to reposition themselves with an increasingly hostile consumer market, and some of it comes from the insitance of Government for larger firms they contract with to open up their supply chains to SME’s. In any event we can benefit from this trend if we understand the opportunities and risks which is what our series of events hopes to help social enterprises to do. We have three more in the pipeline which will all be different but carry the same central theme, which is how can se’s win business off larger mainstream firms?


  7. Allison, Allow me to introduce some corporates who have our social enterprise in their supply chain. GE, BASF, Honeywell and BAA are all long term customers who provide the revenue which funds core operations. Form this we leverage social change by reasoning the case for embedded social value, and by being the type of business we describe in strategic proposals, this being a key example:

    The colleague whose work that was, died for want of being paid for his creative property while he battled for support in our work to remove children from widespread abuse and neglect.

    For this reason, I find the promotion of ‘Creating Shared Value’ by the Transition Institute both dismissive and offensive. The hypothesis of a Harvard professor used in preference to social business which is both authentic and has been the change.

    I’m not going to be brushed aside by this kind of intellectual dishonesty..
    To see those now building their reputations on the work our founder died doing is beyond the pale.

    Isn’t the social enterprise movement big enough to acknowledge his contribution?


  8. This event seems misnamed because most social enterprises are corporates too and I hope this isn’t a London-only thing, but then again I need to chase SEEE about our membership enquiry. Among others.

    @alexxelaAlex – There is a little national corporate social enterprise support. for example. And I thought that Scotland was doing better, but maybe I’m misinformed?

    @Allison Ogden-Newton – If the direct consumer market is increasingly hostile, shouldn’t social enterprises be increasingly hostile to those companies that anger society, too? Are we really benefitting society by helping bad companies survive?

    But the real reason I’m commenting is the “confusing mix of broadly similar flavours producing a bitter aftertaste”. Great one! 🙂


  9. Beanbags admin

    Hi Jeff,

    I’m not sure that it’s possible to copyright ideas about ways of doing business. Do you have evidence that anyone has literally copied your specific ideas – as opposed to coming to similar conclusions to you and your colleagues, working independently of you?


    • David, What I describe began 15 years ago with a paper which was published on the web in synopsis intentionally without copyright so that they might be used for social benefit, The author informs me that he later discovered that doing this conferred copyright by default. Web archives which go back to 1999 when I first knew about it, were truncated by the closure of Yahoo Geocities and the history now goes back to 2002.

      It was an experience later in Crimea which demonstrated that copyright could be used to protect a development proposal. US government were ready to invest $40 million dollars and a local politician attempted to cut P-CED out of the small consultancy fee requested by trying to deal direct with the US Embassy. The project was halted by drawing the attention of the US Embassy to its copyright.

      Terry goes on to explain how the ‘Marshall Plan’ proposal came under threat from Ukraine’s leading mogul. This led to the unusual step of publishing a proposal as a magazine article to protect copyright. We heard no more about the .

      The ‘mogul’ whose mining company DTEK sits alongside BITC and the British Council as sponsors of the East Europe Foundation was more recently featured in the Daily Mail as the sponsor of Lord Mandelson’s trip to advocate on behalf of Ukraine in the East European Partnership. This would open up access to EU markets Was it merely a coincidence that the barrister whose name was used in furious efforts to discredit us was getting a lot of her work from the EU?

      This much I know. The hijack by USAID, British Council and Erste Bank came after they were each approached directly with our work. The EU social business consultation came after our submission to the EU citizens consultation.

      If by some coincidence other came up with similar ideas independently several years later without being influenced by any of what I describe above, is not reason to include us rather than keeping us out of the picture? It had been introduced to SEL and SEC among others between 2004 and 2006 and in the case of SEC as paid members.


  10. Beanbags admin

    Thanks Jeff. Readers from any of the organisations mentioned in the above comment please note that these views are Jeff’s own. I am not in a position to check the factual accuracy of any statements made in the comment or express an informed opinion on them. If any parties believe statements are innacurate please let me know.


  11. Hi David, Your blog is fast becoming the go-to blog on SE. Another great post. Dry, observant and sceptical without veering into outright cynicism. Like a lot of SE people I have a somewhat schizophrenic attitude to big biz. I both like em for what they’ve done for my orgs and share some of the scepticism, especially at set-pieces where they hold the stage. But I think some of my schizophrenia arises from the fact that the corporate world is not one homogeny. Like you I don’t have a lot of time for the CSR driven offers of Deloitte and the like. I am not sure these orgs really have that much to offer, all said. Their recent scheme – which they sought to sign Stepping Out up to – seemed to be offering a bit of mentoring (I would be interested to see who they came up with) and ‘cost price’ Deloitte services. Er….no thanks. When it comes to the big four you really do need to work out what’s in it for them, because it will be at least as much as what’s in it for. you. Other firms I have found to be different. Privately held firms, some in the private equity sector, certain VC firms. Here I have seen more actually given and less ‘taken’ in the sense that your piece is, I think, alluding to. But the big firms, no I just don’t think they’re making a big enough offer to be interesting to most SEs.


  12. Beanbags admin

    Hi Craig, lots of interesting thoughts there. I think you’re right, in that it’s about social entrepreneurs finding the right corporates to work with (and vice-versa). And, as Scumboni says above, asking for things.

    Obviously, in terms of individual company’s offers, it’s probably best if I stick to observing and let people make their own judgments.


  13. Another great post David! You are my favourite SE opinion leader, insightful, disciplined, fun…

    I think it is not surprising that corporates are jumping into the SE support pool. Some of them might even understand social entrepreneurship as an opportunity to access new markets. And some people think that the future might bring a synthesis between conventional businesses and social enterprise, with the boundaries and the differences loosing importance over time.

    What would be really good is seeing these newly launched initiatives supporting hard working people, like you at social spider, instead of the untested, peripatetic and office-less changemaker/innovator, preferably a designer, that everyone seems to be looking for nowadays.


  14. Beanbags admin

    Thanks. You’re my favourite SE academic! I should point out that some of my best friends are untested, peripatetic and office-less changemaker/innovators.


  15. If the purpose of the social enterprise movement is to mainstream social purpose / impact then corporates engaging with social enterprises should be massively welcomed. Social enterprises will directly benefit from the resources / talent of corporates and have the ability to pollinate social enterprise values.


  16. It’s always an interesting area because as Richard, MJ and Craig all say, we need to both engage with but also be the “alternative” to big business. So walking that line of effectively critiquing their model, whilst also seeking to help ‘change’ them through opening up supply chains, engaging staff in relevant activity, seeking partnerships that are genuinely mutually beneficial and so forth.

    I think the SEL events, the Mark 50 in 250 campaign and work by others like Social Firms UK + ClearlySo (as well as ourselves at SEUK) are making some good, tangible progress here. But much to do, and much to do together.

    And the motivations of private sector businesses vary too: some interested in improving the relevance of their CSR, some interested in accessing a growing market, some trying to future-proof their entire business….


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  19. Our ‘corporate engagement strategy’ would truly fit on the back of a fag packet. I would love it to bear some relationship to the bit it alludes to in my marketing plan, but in reality it doesn’t. I get the frustration, anger and disillusionment previously succinctly expressed, but the sector isn’t an island – and is it a sector at all for that matter? (Maybe that’s for another post…) My team (that’s me and Temi) spend an awful lot of time considering who to approach, how to approach them, working out our pitch, having numerous meetings – only to find out that maybe there is no common ground. But as an intermediary/support agency/whatever, we should be the ones banging on doors and finding out if under the rhetoric there’s some business to be had for our members.
    If we did work together we could fashion what those opportunities could look like across the whole of the sector, instead of reacting to corporate social enterprise engagement strategies. Unfortunately with so much land-grab going on due to fiscal pressures, this seems unlikely.


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