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“We learn nothing if we don’t learn from history”- Peter Holbrook interview – part two

Following on from Tuesday’s first installment, part two of my interview with Peter Holbrook, Chief Executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition, begins with the issue that – with the possible exception of social injustice – generates more anger and frustration within the social enterprise movement than any other. Deep breath, do we need a greater emphasis on the social impact that an organisation has, rather than concentrating on whether an organisation has a particular legal form? Is the current balance right?

“Goodness, if only I knew the answer to that! In the case of virtually everyone I meet in movement, the reason they got into this sector isn’t because it’s got a sexy image associated with it, it’s because they want to create social impact. Now that’s great and that’s wonderful but we learn nothing if we don’t learn from history.

We have to recognise that an awful lot of really fantastic businesses have set up with a strong social purpose, committed to social impact and as they’ve become more successful, they’ve become more and more detached from their social purpose. It’s Cadbury, it’s The Body Shop, it’s Ben & Jerry’s – there’s a whole raft of them and some of them I’ve worked for. It’s all very well to be totally committed to social impact when we’re small but how do you maintain that commitment in the longer term?

And if you are building you’re business very publically on that commitment to social impact then I believe you should be committed to social impact in the longer term. You can’t build a business on social impact and then, at a convenient time, sell up to anyone you like – cash in on it and move on. I don’t want to get hung up on legal forms, I think it’s probably one of the driest subjects but fundamentally I do think that, what some fantastic social enterprises show us – whether it’s The Co-Operative group or other huge organisations like Welsh Water – is that you can be big, you can be successful and you can still retain your social values as an organisation.

We shouldn’t get hung up on it but I think protecting against the dissolution of your social commitment is quite important to get right at the outset. It’s important that leaders recognise that at some point, whether they die or change jobs, they will move on and the values that they set up the organisation with, may or may not be lost. Is that a risk people are willing to take?

You do need to think about succession from the outset. When I set up my businesses, I could’ve potentially set some of them up as private businesses and sold them but that was never my intention. It was my intention to protect the values that I wanted to enshrine within those companies when I incorporated them. That’s why I chose asset locked models. So, the emphasis should all be about social impact but it shouldn’t just be about impact in the here and now. It should be about future impact.”

But is there any role for straight, for profit, business models in the social enterprise family?

“If they’re straight for-profit – and that’s their primary objective – then ‘no’ because primary purpose is very important in our family. Our primary purpose has to be social and environmental benefit otherwise there’s nothing to distinguish us from businesses that claim to be ethical. So, it’s unlikely, unless they’re owned, for example, by a charitable organisation.  

But then you have an organisation like Cafédirect. It’s a company limited-by-shares which doesn’t have an asset lock in a traditional way but they’ve set themselves up with a golden share issued to protect the integrity of that brand in the longer term. We’re in a constant state of evolution and change, and I accept and welcome that. That means we need to constantly adapt our thinking around some of these subjects.

It’s not a black and white answer but I don’t think you could have an organisation that simply works in the social economy, which is obliged to maximise shareholder value, in our family. I just don’t see it, unless those shareholders are absolutely and genuinely committed to a clear and stated social purpose.”

What if a company is socially beneficial in both its product and process but feels that a conventional for-profit structure is the best way to bring in investment?

“What people find when they take traditional forms of equity investment is that often it’s a slippery slope. So, take The Body Shop. Clearly started out with a mission to change the way we buy toiletries and cosmetics. And, in doing so, raised some very, very big topics: French nuclear arms testing in the pacific, animal testing, domestic violence, destruction of habitat, Fairtrade.

It was doing all of that, then it needed capital to fund its expansion so it went to traditional financial markets. Initially it didn’t raise enough capital to fund its cashflow needs so it had no other choice but to sell more or lose share value. And, once the Roddicks lost control, the values that were enshrined in that business – particularly when I worked for it – started diluting and dissipating bit by bit.

The reason why I mentioned the social stock exchange (see part one) earlier was that we shouldn’t just go after any investment possible.  Because how would you feel if you were a social enterprise taking money from a giant pharmaceutical company that was, in its best interests, peddling Ritalin to thousands of children that didn’t need it?

When you take investment it’s really important and you should be taking, where possible, investment from sources that you at least understand. And unfortunately, in the financial markets, when you’re getting investment from a pension fund, you’ve got no idea where that money’s been generated. So it could be that on the one hand I’m doing some good over here but by achieving this good, I’m actually creating huge damage over there.

So, I think we need to find ethical instruments and opportunities for people to invest ethically – and supporting ways of connecting those opportunities with those investors is one major ambition that I have.”

But do those investors exist?

“They do exist. I’m one of them and I know plenty of other people. If you think about our own sector – our own sector has 800,000 to 1,000,000 employees and £24 billion turnover. We know the charities have billions of pounds tucked away in reserves. Local authorities that represent us have billions of pounds in reserve. If we can insist that our money – and it is our money, our pension fund money, local authority reserves – are invested in socially beneficial concepts and ideas and projects and businesses – social enterprises – that we might find the capital investment that we need without necessarily losing the integrity of what we set out to do.”

As someone who hasn’t always been supportive of everything SEC has done, I’m interested to see that they’re undertaking what I’ve perceived as a rebranding exercise. I ask why they’re doing that?

“It’s more a review. The world’s shifted, more than anyone ever envisaged a couple of years ago. And the world’s certainly shifted for the Coalition. We were pretty reliant on one major customer: the government. Long before the change of government we decided that that was not a resilient business model and that we needed to diversify our income streams. As far as I’m concerned, this organisation I’m responsible for is owned by the community, the social enterprise community. So, on a shoestring, we’ve gone out undertaken a review and asked members and stakeholders for their opinions.

To ask them, as well as potential customers for the future, and existing stakeholders and customers, what sort of organisation they think SEC should be and how they should be represented. We’ll listen to that and if we think that there is a strong enough will or expectation that we identify ourselves slightly differently – that we use different language to define who we are and what we do – then we will take that on board and do that.

It’s a bit of repositioning exercise to ensure that we are fit for purpose to go and do business because I’m determined to ensure that we become much more of a social enterprise ourselves, much more reflective of the movement.”

If the main customer was the government, who’s the main customer now?

“Government will remain a customer but hopefully a less important customer. I hope that in some cases it will be local authorities, in some cases it will be national charities, it some cases it will be spin-outs. In some cases it will be our members. There are some things that can only be done on a national level. And therefore we have responsibility to provide that service. So whether that’s events, training, products or services – on a national level we need to do that and if we do that successfully, we will our profits back into the social enterprise movement.

There are also international customers out there. People that recognise that what’s happening in the UK is world leading: in terms of political support, in terms of the public services agenda and in terms of the development of new legal forms and financial instruments. If we could actually help other communities in other countries to learn from our experience, that we should absolutely ensure that we do that. And we should ensure that we (SEC) are running a successful and sustainable social enterprise by selling some of those services, not just giving them away.”

The UK social enterprise sector is heavily focused on public funding and public service delivery. Is it time for a greater emphasis on social enterprise in the mainstream, consumer economy?

“Yes. We recognise the current trend is about public service expenditure shrinking – so it’s going to be potentially a more diverse market but it’s still going to be a shrinking market. Yet, we’ve seen that even through the recession, the demand for ethical products and services has continued to grow – with one exception, and that’s organic. So, we know that there is this consumer demand for transparency and kindness in the way that business is done.

I still come across people that are angry about the economic crash and the way business was done in the lead up to 2008. So, there is a huge opportunity there and if we are going to change the way that business is done. 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.

We’ve won the political debate and we’ve got that cross party support. Now we need to bring consumers on board, so people like my mum and my mum’s neighbours know what social enterprise is, and so that people recognise that social enterprise provides opportunities for them – whether they’re young, old, from whatever religious or ethnic background, whether they’ve got disabilities – they actually think there’s something here for me.”

So you’re hopeful that social enterprise can become a mainstream consumer choice?

“That’s my long term ambition. I don’t know whether I will achieve that in my time at the Coalition but I think that’s where we have to head. Actually, in 2008 I think the Co-Op got an uplift in personal account holders by 39% because people understood its value-based proposition. It can be a real benefit to business so why can’t we do that with a whole range of other products and services outside of banking and grocery?

We can do that I think in every walk of life. That’s really what I want to happen because, not only, will it help tackle the challenges we face locally and nationally, and in terms of economic austerity. It will also I believe, help tackle global challenges, of ever greater wealth injustice, social injustice and environmental catastrophe. It’s a big hope and I know it’s not the only solution to the challenge we face but I think it can play a really significant part if we’re able to communicate that more effectively.”

Finally, a question supplied by Nick Temple: “For breakfast, do you read The Big Issue with a cup of CafeDirect and a bar of Divine Chocolate?”

“For breakfast this morning I can tell you I had bowl, at my desk, of crunchy crisp and strawberry muesli. But I did buy it from the Co-Op. And I did have it with some organic soya milk that I also bought from the Co-Op. I do drink social enterprise coffee. I try not eat too much chocolate full stop but, when I do, I love Divine. And I do buy The Big Issue because it’s got the Social Enterprise Mark on it, and I like to see the Social Enterprise Mark.

And Dai Powell(of HCT)’s buses go past my house every 15 minutes – day in, day out – in Wanstead. So I do kind of feel I live the dream. I actually walk an extra ten minutes to my shopping with the Co-Op and I bank with the Co-Op. I can show you my Co-Op members card, my bank cards. Everything I try to do is very socially enterprising. Because I do genuinely believe in it.”

I can confirm that, following the conclusion of the interview, we passed the kitchen on my way out and I was shown the Muesli packet discussed above – plus a range of fairtrade tea bags and jars of coffee. Thanks a lot to Peter for making the time to do the interview.

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“A better way of doing business” – Peter Holbrook interview, part one

2010 wasn’t the easiest time to settle into the job of chief executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition(SEC).

On the plus side, years of lobbying (and some good work by social enterprises) had paid off with ‘social enterprise’ spattered across all the major parties manifestos at the General Election. On the minus side, social enterprise was often portrayed as either a silver bullet solution to the reduction in public spending or a euphemism for privatisation.

Now, over a year into the job, I went to talk to Peter Holbrook at SEC’s office in London – to get his take on some of the big challenges and questions facing the sector.

Firstly on the issue of the role of social enterprise in public sector reform. What does he see as the big opportunities and dangers?:

“I think there’s a huge opportunity in terms of recognising that social enterprise can play a part in creating a more resilient, more just, more inclusive and fair society. In the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, politicians recognise that recent ways of doing business that have emerged over the last 30 years, do not create the plural economy that we need.

The fact that social enterprises have weathered the storm seemingly far better shows they can contribute, not only in tackling social problems but in building that resilient, fair, sound economy. It’s a better way of doing business, right? 

Where the danger exists is that social enterprise is seen as the answer to every ill; the magic solution; because those of us that work within it know, it can be absolutely fantastic but it can’t solve every problem. Particularly when you look at the expectation that social enterprise can single-handedly transform public services.

It’s a brave experiment we’re going through in terms of the government’s mutualism agenda, NHS reform and the public services White Paper. There are huge opportunities for us but if we’re not careful, it could all go horribly wrong. Then we’ll have lost a golden opportunity and we will have created damage to the integrity and reputation that so many brilliant people have spent so many years developing. 

I think we need to remain slightly agnostic about whether the government’s agenda is good or bad but, what we need to do is if this agenda is going to be driven forwards, is to make absolutely sure that we are mitigating the risks and maximising the chances for success.”

What does success mean in this context?

“In terms of public services, there’s three options:

  • we don’t deliver
  • we outsource and privatise
  • or we go down this route of mutualisation and social enterprise

Now, if we accept that just cutting essential services is absolutely not in anyone’s best interests, we’re left with two options: social enterprise or privatisation. If we go down the social enterprise route and the experiment fails then potentially we’re only left with one option, and that is the privatisation of virtually everything – apart from probably the army (although even that’s happened in America). So, we have to maximise the opportunities for these new social enterprises to succeed because it’s in the staff’s interest, the community’s interest and the end recipient of that service’s interest.

We have lots of examples of where this can be done absolutely brilliantly but can we expect that to be replicated, on the scale that is expect of us, in the timeframe that’s expected of us, with the limited resources that are available?

That’s where the risk exists.  If we don’t make this work, mitigate the risks and collectively, as a movement, try and limit the chance of failure for these new organisations – whilst accepting that there will always be some failure (and that’s inevitable) – then I think the experiment will have been deemed to have failed and the private sector will come in and mop up the mess. And we will be back out of fashion as quickly as we came in to fashion.”

I suggest that a key challenge in public service commissioning is where there is a choice between between a social enterprise and a private sector giant like SERCO or Capita. How can a social enterprise be expected to compete?

“I’ve always been clear than social enterprise isn’t just a nice way of doing business. Commissioners shouldn’t buy social enterprise because it’s quirky and feels nice and warm.

The fact we don’t have to generate shareholder return, potentially gives us a competitive advantage. There is no hole in the bucket. We don’t have to leak resources out to hungry shareholders who, ideally, year on year want an ever greater return. And, when you’ve got a well-functioning social enterprise, you have incredibly productive staff and you have incredibly supportive consumers, beneficiaries and wider stakeholders. They want you to succeed and that also creates a huge competitive advantage.

I’m not just that I’m an advocate of social enterprise. I am, but that’s because I understand why these organisations can function more effectively – both in terms of productivity and in terms of providing more value than an alternative form of business.

So, I think we should be able to compete, it’s just a case of whether – particularly in terms of the public sector spin outs –  they will be able to transform their culture within the time period they’re given.”

Right to request organisations had guaranteed contracts for three years. In other instances, that won’t necessarily be the case. Do you think it’s possible for social enterprises to compete from a standing start?

“I think it’s very hard to, if I’m honest. You can’t all of a sudden take eighty or eight hundred staff and say ‘we are now a social enterprise and we’re going to be competition ready’ because you need to restructure and you need to re-organise. You often need to reconnect with your beneficiaries, your service users. That’s absolutely critical and that’s the learning that we’ve taken from some of the best organisations that have come out through the Right to Request. We recognise that they require a period of transition.

For some, it will be less than others but I think there needs to be a minimum period – a minimum cushion in order to reorganise and go through that transformation – of three years, preferably five. Without that, we are setting these organisations up to fail. And when they fail, the most obvious answer will be that the private sector has to come in.

Organisations that come out don’t necessarily have the right skills mix to be competition ready. If you take 80 staff out of a community services group, they’re likely to be a couple of senior managers, some middle managers and service delivery staff. They’re unlikely to have a bid-writing team and a sales force. 

They’re not going to automatically spin-out set up to compete with people who’ve invested for the last couple of years getting ready for some of these market opportunities.”

When Capita got started, they didn’t have team for everything, they were just a few blokes. The difference, I suppose, is that they were in a position to attract investment?

“Yes. We absolutely have to crack this nut: ‘how are we going to find this investment?’

If you form a co-operative or  a CIC Limited-by-Guarantee or a charity, it’s very difficult for you to take investment. You usually come out without any collateral, which means that you limited opportunities to attract any debt finance. You’ve got no track record, which further limited your appeal to those sources, so where do you get that money from? You can’t suggest that it’s all going to come from the Big Society Bank because it’s not. So where else is going to come from?

We have to be very clear that these organisations are going to need some initial investment from somewhere to have a credible opportunity to get going. They’re not going to have the same resources that were available to the Right-to-Requesters who at least had the opportunity to bid in to the Social Enterprise Investment Fund.”

This is a question hanging in the air but who is it a question for? The government?

“It’s a question for both the social enterprise movement and the government. I think one of the  really exciting developments is the idea of a Social Stock Exchange. It’s been hanging around for a little while but my understanding is that it’s going to be launched this year. I think it’s is fundamental in connecting individuals with a true social purpose.

I’ve got my pension in an ethical fund which is environmentally light green if it’s green at all – it’s probably turquoise. I would love to be able to say to my pension fund administrator: ‘Actually, I don’t want your turquoise or your light green fund – which just pulls out the very, very worst offending companies: tobacco, arms and similar activities. Actually, I want to invest in companies that are genuinely socially beneficial and therefore I want you to invest my pension in the Social Stock Exchange.’

I think that is the way that we can actually start drawing mainstream investment. Increasingly we’ve become wise about what we do with our spending power but what about our investments – our pensions, our mortgages? What happens to our local authorities’ money? What happens to the charities’ money?  Often, you find these funds invested in wholly greed driven opportunities.

My reckoning is that if you invest in the social stock exchange, it will fluctuate less and it will probably out-perform in the long-term some of these very risky investments that we saw collapse in spectacular fashion back in 2008.”

Moving on (a bit) from public sector reform. Social enterprise is not popular with everyone in the voluntary sector? Does Holbrook think there’s a disconnect between social enterprise and other voluntary sector groups, or does he think the distinction needs to be emphasised more?

“There is always going to be overlap between the various sectors but we need to be clear about where we are different. I think we need to be clear that we are not based on voluntary effort,  that we want to employ people and that we want to give people opportunities. We want to create robust and resilient businesses that deliver social change. Sometime the messages that come out from the voluntary sector don’t help us to make that case with the clarity that we seek to.”

What sort of messages?

“For example, when Big Society was launched it seemed that it was all about more volunteering. And people thought ‘How an earth are we expected to carry out a full time job, and then go and volunteer at the local library and deliver meals-on-wheels to an elderly person on the way home, before we cut the lawn and plant some daffodils?’

The Big Society for me isn’t just about doing more for nothing. It’s about transforming the way we do things. What, I would say to someone is: ‘rather than expecting to go and work for a company you don’t like and in the evening do lots of voluntary activity, bring the two together and work for a company that you think is socially beneficial. You can meet your values and achieve your personal ambitions through the way you work and through who you choose to work for.’

So I think, in terms of Big Society, the narrative created by some of the more traditional voluntary organisations, hasn’t helped move the debate on. For too long social policy and economic policy have been seen very separately and to have any hope of meeting the challenges we face as a society and as an economy, we need to bring the two together.”

I suggest that part of the cause of resentment between social enterprise and the voluntary sector is the suggestion that social enterprise means the voluntary sector turning everything they do into a business.

“I think that’s a very un-entrepreneurial way to look at it. When I was at Sunlight, there were certain things that we did that you have very little chance of charging for directly. The domestic violence drop-in is one. It’s very successful and we used to get a lot of women coming in to that – and occasionally men – that really were desperate and needed help. Now the idea of charging for it on a full cost recovery basis is ludicrous. But our community wouldn’t have had that service unless we had a social enterprise in our community that was able to profit in other ways and take some of that profit and deliver services that were identified by the community as being needed.

It’s not always that everything has to become a business, it’s about being entrepreneurial and being enterprising as a way of meeting the needs of a community. I think there is a misunderstanding that we within our sector want to turn everything into a business, when what we want to do is find a sustainable solution to delivering the services that we need.

I don’t think that that means that we think that the government doesn’t have a role. Government does have a role but either you’re going to take an ideological position and campaign for the funding to come through for a service that you think government should support, or you’re going to take a pragmatic, enterprising approach and say: ‘this is really needed, and we’re going to find a way to deliver it’.”

Other sceptics in the voluntary sector say social enterprise should be more honest about its dependence on grant-funding…

“I don’t have a problem with grants. My organisations wouldn’t have got going without some initial grant funding but I think it should be seed funding. I think the word that you’ve used which is really important is dependent. Should you be dependent, or should you use grant funding, as a catalyst, or as a fertilizer, to grow out of dependency?

Some organisations that I’ve looked at that are social enterprises are, frankly, too grant dependent. Others are too dependent on one customer. And actually the way to build a resilient social enterprise is to diversify your income streams so that, if one goes, you’re not screwed overnight. I think it’s about moving away from dependency full stop.

Now, if someone’s offering you a grant, you’d be a fool to say ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got an ideological problem with taking grants, no thank you.’ You should be able to take grants but you should always see it as a route to greater sustainability.

I know that some fantastic organisations out there that are very culturally socially enterprising are still grant dependent but they know which direction they’re heading in. If they are culturally and psychologically social enterprises and trying to move into a more enterprising future then I think ‘great’.”

The second and final part of this interview will be published on Thursday. It looks at internal issues – such as the ongoing question of legal structure vs. social impact – and the wider challenge of bringing social enterprise into the mainstream.

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The Social Enterprise Mark – what went wrong

It’s always been my intention for this blog, where appropriate, to be robustly critical of negative developments within the social enterprise world but to avoid being gratuitously rude or nasty. I’ve been attempting to come up with a suitable response to the article from the Mark team in this month’s (generally very good) issue of Social Enterprise magazine but unfortunately, the Mark saga has now reached a point where it feels distinctly unpleasant to be stating the facts.

The Mark’s Marketing and Communications Manager, Lesley Foster, explains that nine months on from its launch as a ‘national brand’ there are now ‘more than 250’ Mark holders. Based on (Mark partner) the Social Enterprise Coalition(SEC)’s claim that there are 62,000 social enterprises in the UK, the Mark is still some way off signing up 0.5% of those eligible. With grant funding for the project totaling between £814,000 and £964,000, current figures (now reported by the SE Mark team as 275*) show each £99 Mark award being subsidised with at least £2,960 of grant income*.

With 275 social enterprises signed up, trading income equals £27,225*. At best this represents slightly over 3.2%* of the project’s turnover. Given that at least 50% of a Mark holder’s income needs to come from trading, the Mark team must now be contemplating the possibility that – even if the project receives a further injection of grant or government funding – it will be morally impossible for The Social Enterprise Mark Company to display the Mark on its own website after March 2011.

As mentioned previously, I’ve never been a supporter of the Mark. It neither tells commissioners about what organisations do and how they do it, nor tells consumers about the social impact of the products they buy (like, for example, the Fairtrade Mark). I’m remain willing to sign-up to a Mark that does either of those things but I see no benefit in buying into what a friend in the movement describes as ‘a bumper sticker that delivers no social impact’.

Despite my own opposition to the Mark, I’m genuinely surprised it’s been as unsuccessful as it has been. My hunch at the time of the its launch was that as many social entrepreneurs are optimistic people, keen to try and make the best of things, often against their better judgment, many would apply for the Mark as a gesture of social enterprise solidarity.

As it is, the speed and scale of the comeback necessary for the Mark in its present form to become a sustainable business would, if achieved, rightly see the Mark Company registered as a religion in the next census. The Mark has been a cock-up from start to (looming) finish. Given the resources expended, the number of social enterprises signed-up is significantly less than the number who could reasonably have been expected to have been engaged in lengthy one-to-one discussion on their needs during the market research stage. Instead, the Mark has been a political fudge – who can forget the darkly hilariously proposals for a three-tiered accreditation system – that failed disastrously to even fudge the politics of the issue.

A clue to the debacle may possible lie in the fact that the project was pushed forward by a “14-member social enterprise identifier project steering group that was set up to find a way to brand the sector with professional marketing advice from the government’s Central Office of Information (COI).” I’m sure there are some good uses for a 14-member steering group but I don’t think any of them are directly-related to starting a sustainable business.

Current SEC chief executive, Peter Holbrook, is not to blame for what’s happened. He’s loyally and honourably backed the Mark after finding it in his inbox on taking up the job this year but he will hopefully be able to play a role in both sorting out the mess and making sure similar mistakes don’t happen again. Between them, Rise, SEC and the late Office of the Third Sector have – with undoubted good intentions – cooked up an embarrassingly expensive dogs dinner. Most worryingly, the Mark saga demonstrates the failure of many in the upper echelons of the social enterprise lobby to understand either what social enterprises need or how social enterprise works in practice.

Recriminations are no use to anyone but it’s time for a bit of humility and a lot of listening. I hope that it’s not too late to salvage something from the mess. Maybe there’s still time for a new Mark product, developed in consultation with people running social enterprises rather civil servants and umbrella body executives and enabling social enterprises to better explain what they do to commissioners and/or customers, to be brought to market.

*Figures updated in response to new information provided by the SE Mark team.

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Refining the message

An interesting tonal shift at the Social Enterprise Coalition where Chief Executive Peter Holbrook issued this cautious statement on the eve of the general election.

I’m probably competing with Rob Greenland to be the blogger least likely to disagree with statements such as:

“Social enterprises are not panaceas, and they’re not perfect – they will have their ups and downs like any business.”

“Whatever form they take, they are based on the principles of mutualism, coproduction and participation and as such they offer an organisational form that is accountable and gives people a voice – and this is the important part – should they wish to use it.” – I’ve left out the italics I’d usually use for quotes to leave Holbrook’s emphasis in place.

but I’m surprised, as I gather are leading figures in the lobby, that Holbrook chose the day before the election to take this particular tack.

The Coalition has reached an interesting point. The previous Chief Executive, Jonathan Bland, was a phenomenally successful lobbyist and he succeeded in taking the idea of social enterprise from absolutely nowhere to being a key plank of the manifestos of all three major political parties.

The problem was that, under Bland, the development of actually-existing social enterprises in the UK outside the corridors of power didn’t proceed as quickly as the positive messages proceeded through Whitehall.

This may be partially because unlike, for example, ACEVO – which is very successful in lobbying and working in the interests of its members (which its team would obviously say are also the interests of society as a whole) – the Coalition under Bland lobbied heavily and successfully in the interests of social enterprise as an idea rather than specifically lobbying and working in the interests of social enterprises or social entrepreneurs.

To take a fairly crude illustration of this: it’s in the interests of social enterprise as an idea for the delivery wing of the local PCT to opt-out of the NHS and call itself a social enterprise but it’s not really in the interests of pre-existing small local social enterprise providers of health services who – having previously been faced with a local behemoth that was (to some extent) handicapped by its public sector structures – are now facing a competitor that’s as big and well in with decision makers as it was before but also probably more efficiently administrated.

I’m not saying that’s an argument against policies such as right to request but it creates a tension between the interests of social enterprise as an idea and the interests of the majority of organisations that make up the social enterprise movement.

In the wider voluntary sector – because it’s much bigger – there’s different organisations (ACEVO, NCVO, NAVCA) to represent groups with overlapping but slightly different interests and there isn’t the need to lobby in favour of the actual existence of the voluntary sector as an idea because, whether or not they call it the voluntary sector, no one disputes that it exists.

So the social enterprise lobby is faced with a circle that needs squaring but the only option is to find a reasonable balance between promoting the idea and promoting and supporting the work of people that are already carrying it out.

I reckon SEL do this reasonably well in terms of both promoting the idea and offering practically useful support services and events to existing organisations and socially entrepreneurial individuals in London.

The Coalition’s key messages from the last decade: ‘the general public doesn’t know what social enterprise is, give us cash to tell them’ and ‘the public wants social enterprises to deliver public services’ have, irrespective of their contradictory nature, been heavily slanted towards the ‘promoting the idea’ end of the spectrum.

The mark debacle aside, my hope is that Holbrook’s election message is a signal that the coalition is going to start showing a bit more interest in social enterprises and social enterpreneurs and the actual stuff that they do. Others in the lobby may worry that, in issuing this statement, he’s also inadvertently saying: “don’t blame us when social enterprise doesn’t solve everything”. I think that’s a reasonable point too but it definitely is an interesting time to make it.

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