Putting our money where our mouth is

Do you run a social enterprise? Do you buy stuff from other social enterprises? If not, why not? These are the essential questions being asked by Social Enterprise UK(SEUK)’s new campaign Buy Social.

Having successfully convinced a corporate cloud computing giant to drop a major chunk of its marketing strategy, the umbrella body’s next trick is apparently to attempt to convince some people to do something that you might imagine they would’ve been doing anyway.

SEUK’s research shows that 1 in 4 social enterprises don’t make any regular purchases from other social enterprises at all and while, on the plus side 70% of social enterprises have at least one other social enterprise in their supply chain, only 13% said that the majority of their suppliers are social enterprises.

In response, SEUK is putting its money where its mouth is. Not only have they been buying stuff from social enterprises themselves, they’ve also posted a list of recent social enterprise purchases from their staff team. The overall goal of the campaign is to see 500 new deals done between social enterprises by Social Enterprise Day 2013 – as Social Enterprise Day is in November, that’s just over a year away.

The Buy Social campaign is itself a social enterprise partnership between SEUK and our friends at communications agency, Poached Creative, who have developed the message and the campaign materials. Poached Creative’s director, Jess Smith, has written a blog post about what her company buys from, and sells to, other social enterprises (including us at Social Spider CIC).

I think the campaign’s a really good idea. It got a clear, positive focus and is a good way of harnessing the collective energy of the social enterprise movement – particularly via social media – in a way that should actually result in stuff being sold. At Social Spider CIC, we already use social enterprise suppliers where we can including The Co-Operative Bank, The Phone Co-op and Intentionality, who have been helping us develop our social impact measurement.

I also think the campaign raises a couple of questions. One is around SEUK’s research findings on the barriers that prevented respondents buying from social enterprises: “When asked what barriers prevented social enterprises buying from others, 35% reported that other social enterprises don’t promote or market themselves to potential social buyers, and 29% had never been able to find social enterprises for the services or products they’ve needed. Very few said that social enterprises couldn’t compete on quality (6%) or price (6%) with other suppliers.

Anecdotally, the first two points are seem reasonable – and the campaign will hopefully help to address them. The stats on quality and price seems wildly optimistic. This is partly because the fact that organisation is a social enterprise doesn’t, in itself, have any effect whatsoever on the quality of an organisations goods and services, or the prices it charges. But I know at least one part of our supply chain where we stopped using a social enterprise supplier because of the poor quality of the service and at least one – our biggest spending area other than wages – where we’ve been unable to switch to a social enterprise supplier due to price.

The spending area where we haven’t been able to Buy Social due to price is printing for our mental health magazine, One in Four and other one-off publications. The frustrating thing is that it’s the one area of our activity where we’re a big enough customer to really matter. But the reason we haven’t found a social enterprise printer to do the job is not because their aren’t any social enterprise printers or because those that do exist aren’t any good – it’s because print is phenomenally competitive market and, as far we know, their aren’t any social enterprise printers who specialise in fast turnaround, high volume, low cost – which is what we need for One in Four.

Last time I checked, the Phone Co-op’s prices were pretty competitive but – hypothetically speaking – it wouldn’t be a commercial disaster if we spent £100 or so a year extra on our phone bill due to the fact we used a social enterprise supplier. Our print bill is equal to 8% – 10% of our entire turnover and that’s a very different matter. Ultimately, it’s a balancing act and, for us as a company, the position we end up at is ‘Buy Social if we can’. Hopefully, the campaign will help us to find more situations where we can.

The other question, though, is where the Buy Social campaign fits in with the wider challenge of selling our goods and services to the vast majority of organisations and people who are not social enterprises.  Some colleagues in the movement have suggested to me that SEUK’s energy could be better focused on helping social enterprises to sell to wider markets. I understand the point but don’t agree with it. Part of the mixture of idealism and pragmatism that makes social enterprise work best is that we find useful things we can do and do them – without being paralysed by the fact that we can’t do everything immediately. And an added positive is that while Buy Social is being facilitated by SEUK, it’s up to us as social enterprises to either make it work or not.

The Buy Social campaign clearly isn’t an overall answer to question of how social enterprises can sell enough products and services to keep going and grow while also delivering positive social change – but it’s useful platform for us to reach new customers who, by virtue of their stated social commitment, should already be at least partly interested in what we’ve got to offer. And social enterprises that are selling more stuff to other social enterprises, will be better placed to sell stuff to everyone else too.




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7 responses to “Putting our money where our mouth is

  1. jeffmowatt

    It was probably a year ago or more, when the Phone Co-op cold called me about providing our telephone services. I explained that our operations were small and didn’t make use of the phone much. It started a conversation in which we both agreed that social enterprise in general rarely engaged the services of other social enterprise. We both saw it as a ‘we don’t need you to change the world’ mentality.
    So we carried on as we began, providing our services in public and corporate supply chains. we verified our own social credentials by means of evaluation in ‘SEE What You Are Buying Into’ which has since been re-branded as Profit through Ethics and perhaps losing that key message in doing so.
    In June last year, I offered an article for the Guardian Social Enterprise hub, describing the evolution of our profit-for-purpose approach to business. Par for the course, it was unwelcome, but were soon to see our message in articles by On Purpose associates. Here lies the problem. We may encourage social enterprise to buy from each other with one and and with the other, dismiss those who’ve been the change.

    Let me draw attention to a statement from our article:

    ‘The P-CED model was adapted to an existing software development business in the UK and from 2004, began operating in the supply chain of several major corporations, government departments and NHS trusts. This is where we’ve always seen the role of social enterprise in healthcare, in providing a competitive commercial service which creates additional social value. ‘

    I introduced our work recently to an initiative which asked how we identify and celebrate businesses that innovate for world benefit:


    Experience tells me that I won’t find many in the social enterprise world who’ll support it, regardless of it being ‘on message’ with #buysocial


  2. “Some colleagues in the movement have suggested to me that SEUK’s energy could be better focused on helping social enterprises to sell to wider markets.”

    This rather assumes that we aren’t also expending energy in these areas, which of course we are: from pushing on with the implementation of the Social Value Act (to open up the housing, local authority, university etc markets) and meeting with procurement and supply chain leads across the private sector (to open up those markets too). Whilst also trying to raise awareness with the general public whenever we can, as many social enterprise sell goods and services direct.

    And, as it says on the campaign page (http://www.socialenterprise.org.uk/policy-campaigns/campaigns/buy-social), “Whilst the first phase of the Buy Social campaign is seeking to support ‘inter-trading’ that doesn’t mean that it’s exclusive to social enterprises only. The next phase will encourage trading between private businesses and social enterprises.”



  3. jeffmowatt

    It was the need to expose social enterprises to each other and the external market that I’d brought up a few years ago with the SEC. I’d opted out of membership in 2007 after offering as a software developer, to help create one

    I had a telephone conversation with Richard Startari in 2008 followed up with an email which said:

    “In regards to your query, the Members’ Section of the website is due to be released shortly. We are currently in the final phases of testing.
    Once the Members’ Section is completed, all our members will be notified and provided with log-in information and how to utilise the many features”

    If there’s now a SE UK members directory , I haven’t stumbled across it, which means other business won’t either.

    Something I’ve become aware of more recently though it’s not available locally, is the Big Local initiative. As I’ve related above, our approach as a social enterprise ,is of using profit to stimulate local economies.
    Big Local appears to be applying a similar approach, albeit though the grant funding of Big Lottery.

    It’s a model I introduced to Big Lottery in 2009, with an application for Village SOS. It failed to meet their expectations of local stakeholder support, which isn’t required AFAICS for Big Local tenders.

    The value of social business contributing to the same objective should be obvious enough, but they aren’t buying it.

    If government and social enterprise agencies aren’t going to engage or promote business based on community primacy, how can they expect anyone else to do so? .


  4. Indeed. Our Social Enterprise Day campaign last year, Society Profits, was aimed exactly at helping social enterprises sell to wider markets, as is the work we are doing to get our members in the national and consumer media, and much besides, as ref’d by my learned colleague above. But social enterprises trading with each other is critically important. This one’s about the coalescence of the sector – social enterprises trading goods, knowledge, support, goodwill, and building collective power and confidence. I can’t think of anywhere SEUK’s energy could be better focused.


    • jeffmowatt

      The point you miss Celia, is that no matter how many campaigns are launched, selective promotion allows the needs of the few to outweigh the needs of the many, as Spock might say.

      If I wanted to do business that way, I’d have signed up with the local Freemason’s lodge.

      The prerequisite for becoming learned is conception and action, walking the talk in other words. When we pay for a form of support that fails to include us, presenting us with a derivative, we are not being served.

      Consider for example how the Transition Institute that you link to advocates Creating Shared Value, business taking the bottom line to social objectives. A concept introduced to SEC and many others 6 years ago.

      http://economics4humanity.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/welcome-to-social-enterprise-support/ .



  5. Pingback: September 23rd, Transition Institute’s Weekly Roundup.

  6. it strikes me that this campaign is another great example of what the wider social enterprise movement can learn from co-operatives;
    for a couple of centuries now, co-operatives have always sought to procure from other co-ops (part of their defining values and principles – #principle6), and its because of this that the co-operative economy is as strong as it is today.

    Over the years, the co-op movement has developed and managed various campaigns to encourage more such inter-trading at local and (inter)national levels, so I’d be interested to learn what SEUK drew from these examples of previous proven practice in informing this current initiative?


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