As if a double dip recession, record cuts in public spending and the contracting arrangements for the Work Programme weren’t enough for the social enterprise movement to contend with, the world’s attempts to prove the correctness of the late Gore Vidal’s claim that “no good deed goes unpunished” have now moved into the murky arena of intellectual property.
The problem is not that cloud computing specialists, Salesforce.com, have got anything specifically against businesses ‘with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners’, it’s just that they use ‘Social Enterprise’ for a different purpose, to define the exciting range of products they offer to help companies make effective use of social media.
This use has annoyed some social entrepreneurs for some time but the situation has escalated significantly in recent weeks following Salesforce.com’s application for a wide-ranging trademark for the words ‘social enterprise’. Civil Society reports that: “Intellectual property legal experts say an attempt by (the firm) to trademark ‘social enterprise’ is unlikely to be successful, but is possible.”
Not surprisingly, Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) chief executive, Peter Holbrook, is on the robust constructive dialogue path, sending an open letter to the company while explaining that: “We’ve raised our concerns with Salesforce more than once and hope they’ll enter into a dialogue with us. With the launch of Big Society Capital, the world’s first wholesale social investment intermediary, and the passing of the Social Value Act, we’re on the cusp of social enterprise entering the mainstream vocabulary in the UK.”
And adding that: “For Salesforce to jeopardise in anyway the social enterprise sector’s progress wouldn’t do much for their reputation. We have taken legal advice and will take the necessary steps to protect the term social enterprise of behalf of all those in the sector.”
SEUK are taking the right action in difficult circumstances but, while Holbrook is clearly correct to suggest that Salesforce.com’s actions are not helpful to ongoing attempts to establish social enterprise in the mainstream – as an approach that both other businesses and individual consumers are familiar with – these circumstances are partly a symptom of the failure of social enterprise to enter the public and corporate consciousness to a meaningful extent.
There is clearly no shortage of interaction between the social enterprise movement and large private sector companies. In the corporate world, anyone who’s anyone is now either running or involved in a social enterprise support and mentoring scheme. None of the schemes are bad but it’s not clear which, if any, of them take us far beyond the world of what used to be known as corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Now, the Salesforce situation raises big questions about the extent to which big decision-makers at big corporates really care about or even know about social enterprise.
That’s particularly true in the case of mobile phone company, O2 – allegedly one of the social enterprise movement’s most prominent corporate supporters. In 2010, the company announced its support for social enterprise stating: ‘This is the age of social enterprise, and 02 is welcoming it with open arms’ and then proceeded to launch both a website and a package of services aimed specifically at social enterprises.
While some potential O2 customers within the movement may have found it difficult to identify specifically social enterprising approaches to phone use that were significantly different to those of other small businesses – and others may have preferred to buy their services from a social enterprise – it was definitely a nice idea.
Given O2’s apparent enthusiasm for our movement, readers familiar with Private Eye’s ‘Just Fancy That’ might be surprised to see the company making this contribution to Salesforce.com’s attempts to promote their alternative version of social enterprise. While Business Director, Ben Dowd and Head of Business IT, Steve Thurlow, are clearly being enthusiastic about something – and with my limited knowledge of their field, I’ve got no reason to doubt that they’re putting that across very well – it’s pretty clear that the ‘social enterprise’ they’re talking about is not our version.
This obviously doesn’t mean that O2 have actively ditched the social enterprise movement and are now opposed to it but it does suggest that their support was always a fairly peripheral element of their (extremely large) business – headed up by individuals employees with a genuine commitment to (our version of) social enterprise but without wider support within the company. In the same way that the head of Business IT would (quite reasonably) not be expected to have a detailed knowledge of all the charities O2 staff might be running the marathon for this year, neither would he be expected to know about the little-known alternative approaches to business that they might be attempting to give a helping hand to (while also hopefully flogging them some services).
In terms of the matter in hand, we have to hope that Salesforce don’t receive a trademark for a phrase that had widely used to define a movement of thousands of organisations, serving millions of people, before they started using it but we should also take this as an opportunity to reconsider of relationship with the corporate giants that taking an interest our sector.
There is a big danger that – following cuts to public spending – many social enterprises, who previously had a ‘business plan’ based primarily on the idea that sooner or later the government would just give them lots of money to do really good stuff, will be tempted to replace the words ‘the government’ with ‘XZY Corp’s corporate supply chain’ and keep on following the same plan.
This may well be (a bit of) the best business model currently available if you’re a social enterprise support agency but it’s definitely not the best approach if you’re running a social enterprise media training organisation in Milton Keynes or a social enterprise bakery in Hull. Most social enterprises will succeed (or fail) by selling (or not selling) stuff to people who want to buy to stuff.
Most of us in the movement believe that there’s a value in the idea of social enterprise entering the mainstream so that more people actively look to buy from social enterprises, and also so that more dedicated and talented people choose to start social enterprises themselves. But mainstream knowledge of the term ‘social enterprise’ will not make unprofitable businesses profitable. In terms of existing social enterprises, if we’re not successful over the coming years it won’t be the fault of Salesforce (or corporate social enterprise support schemes). It will be because we weren’t able to sell enough stuff for less than it cost us to produce it.