Tag Archives: one in four magazine

How do you balance your social and commercial aims?

I’m sure I’m not the only social entrepreneur who’s a bit bored of being asked variations on the question ‘how do you balance your social and commercial aims?’ So bored, in fact, that I may soon reach the point where I resort to the answer ‘on the end of my nose at an angle of between 60 and 80 degrees depending on wind speed’.

The question in its various forms is based on an assumption that is fundamentally incorrect – the assumption that social enterprises that are commercially unsuccessful are unsuccessful because, in their day-to-day approach to business, they prioritise social aims over commercial aims, and successful social enterprises are successful for the opposite reason.

It’s an assumption that some at the more charity-oriented and of the social enterprise spectrum trade on to add sparkle to their halos and that some at the more social business end of spectrum trade on during bouts of macho posturing about how real businesses never need grants.

It’s an incorrect assumption because most social entrepreneurs who stick at for a reasonable period of time do so on the basis that they want to get things done. The current poll on Guardian Social Enterprise Network frames the old social vs. business question in a useful way. It asks: ‘How would you rather be perceived – as a great social enterprise, or as an excellent provider of goods or services?

Obviously most social enterprises aspire to both but it’s a question about emphasis and, for me, the answer is ‘I’d like us to be perceived in whichever way is more likely to persuade a customer to buy our goods or services’. If someone wants to pay us £20,000 for a piece of work purely on the basis that we’ll do a good job, I’m not going to be losing a lot of sleep over whether they understand our core values in the way that I’d like, if someone wants to pay us £20,000 to do a piece of work on the grounds that society as a whole will benefit more from us doing it than someone else, that’s fine too.

What’s important is that someone wants to pay us some money to do something. In my experience, social enterprises are very rarely commercially unsuccessful because they’ve prioritised social aims, or being a good social enterprise, over commercial aims in terms of their day-to-day decision-making.

Aside from the usual problems that affects conventional businesses, the additional one that’s more likely to affect social enterprises is setting out to do something that’s phenomenally difficult to do and that has no prospect of generating serious financial rewards even if successful. At Social Spider, we launched a mass circulation national magazine in a non-existent despite having no money. Our additional social enterprise challenge was that the magazine, One in Four, is written by and for people with mental health difficulties.

For me, social enterprise is all about pragmatism but not at all about compromise. The sensible commercial decision for One in Four magazine, as with many social enterprise ventures, would’ve been to not do it. Since we launched the magazine, in 2008, the socially entrepreneurial challenge has been to keep the magazine going. That’s the social aim and the commercial aim, and it’s been achieved both by being seen as a good social enterprise and by being seen to provide a good service (one or other factor being more important to people in charge of different potential sources of income).

It would be wonderful to be able to blame some of our most embarrassing business mistakes over the last three years on the depth of our social consciences but it would obviously be utter nonsense. The aspiration for social enterprises is to deliver social change through a sustainable business and we can’t do one without the other.

 

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Riots tell us nothing much

As Managing Director of a Walthamstow-based social enterprise and a former employee of an award-winning Haringey-based youth media charity, I feel well enough placed to report that I’ve studied the recent panic on our streets and concluded that these events tell us little of interest about either the state of our country or the policies of our government. They also don’t tell us much about social enterprise.

Other than actions of those directly involved, if any one factor is causally responsible for what happened then it’s the unavoidable prevalence of 24 hour news. I think it’s unlikely that rioting would’ve got anywhere near Gloucester without the blanket coverage of what was happening in London and Birmingham. I’m sure someone French will have a series of points to make about this.

While (or if) I’ve got your attention, though, it may be worth grasping the shoehorn of justice to make an implausible suggestion as to how the onset of a nationwide bout of aggressive light-fingeredness clearly confirms the need for one of my company’s products or services. So I’d like to point you in the direction of One in Four – our national magazine by and for people with mental health difficulties. While the evidence so far is only anecdotal, as far as I know reading the magazine has never incited anyone to lift a flat screen TV.

Social enterprise leaders have had their own points to make. Writing on the Guardian website and her own blog, Social Enterprise London chief executive, Allison Ogden-Newton outlines two possible reactions to the rioting: “Maybe there is no sense, maybe all we need are tens of thousands of police on the street, CCTV cameras on every inner city street corner, or do we go a step further and create proper no-go ghettos like Harlem and the Bronx in New York, where access to the poorest black neighbourhoods are announced by burnt out blocks and gapping demolition sites that separate the taxpayers from the great unwashed. Or do we think again, and do whatever has to be done to get people into work.

She goes on to highlight the potential role for social enterprises in making things better: “Social enterprises such as Livity in Brixton, which has worked with over 1,000 unemployed young people to access jobs in the media, or Catch 22 which turns around the prospects of no-hope kids in Haringey. Recently we have been told that we cannot afford such interventions, but after the last few days and perhaps with what is yet to come, can we afford not to?

Social Enterprise UK‘s Peter Holbrook also has his say noting that: “We have created in our towns and cities  communities of young people that are hopeless – lacking in hope. A generation that believe that they can only command dignity, self value and the  respect of their peers by what they are able to wear and consume, a generation that has aspiration but no belief in their abilities to achieve the celebrity lifestyles that are so aggressively marketed to them, represented across our media in magazines, sports pages, advertising, news, film and tv.

He goes on to suggest that: “A more balanced and plural economy with social enterprise at its heart will not only radically improve the way public services are delivered but could create the opportunities and most importantly, hope. Opportunity, mobility and hope offer the only real solutions to what the recent violence has highlighted – social dysfunction on a grand scale.

Both are right, in that the changes they suggest would make things better but there’s a danger of setting social enterprise up to fail if we claim that we can deliver a society where people no longer want to nick stuff. We need a more just and sustainable economy because it will lead to a society that’s better for us all to live in but that won’t, in itself, stop people from wanting to smash shop windows.

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