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Branching out

they could have used their CSR budget and expertise to help reduce offending, but they planted trees instead!” – this is an anguished statement from a Northampton-based entrepreneur which apparently prompted this partly intriguing but mostly baffling outburst of advice on engaging with corporate CSR departments from Northampton University’s Simon Denny.

The self-styled ‘leading university on social enterprise’ has become increasingly interested in the sector over recent years and provides free-to-access social enterprise support through the Inspire2Enterprise service.

If you happen to live in or around Northampton, you may or may not want your local corporates to be spending the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) budgets on planting trees rather than helping young offenders, either way the underlying problem is that corporates CSR departments are giving their money to causes that aren’t social enterprises, and social enterprises would like to get that money

Denny offers a 10 point plan suggesting how a social enterprise might go about getting CSR departments to give it some money. If you don’t want to plough through all 10 points, the essential message can be summed up in five words: “Take begging bowl. Polish first.”

It seems like a reasonably logical, if in places patronizingly simplistic, check list for a small local charity hoping to get some corporate sponsorship but it’s not clear what it’s got to do with social enterprise – an activity carried out by organisations, as the university’s website helpfully points out: ‘trade products and services to further social and environmental goals’.

To the extent that he’s advising them to sell anything at all, the product or service that Denny is encouraging social enterprises to sell to corporates is ‘social value’. There’s a potentially interesting debate to be had about whether or not it’s possible to sell social value to a private business – public sector agencies have to buy things on behalf of society but could private sector organisations choose to? – but Denny isn’t taking us down this route.

Here’s point 7: “End your account by making a clear proposal – we will give you these outputs, and credit for them, and pages in your annual report, and….if you give us £x cash or expert support in kind. Discuss the proposal, answer questions, ask your own questions, find out what other information might be needed.

What he’s actually talking about corporates stumping up some money in exchange for some good PR. It’s the traditional charitable model of corporate fundraising (although I’m sure any charity fundraisers reading would be quick to point out that it’s a pretty slapdash and simplistic rendering of the traditional charitable model of corporate fundraising).

The reason why this piece is particularly annoying is that if there’s any unifying idea in the UK of what social enterprise isn’t, it’s this. Social enterprise is not organisations knocking on the door of big companies (or councils, or charitable trusts) saying ‘give us some money please, we do really good things for the disadvantaged people’.

If there’s one thing that unites the people (mostly) in Scotland who think social enterprises should never distribute profit under any circumstances with the people in Shoreditch who think social entrepreneurs should be able to make as much profit as they like as long they have a social purpose, it’s that social enterprises are definitely businesses that deliver positive social change through the process of selling goods and services to people and organisations that want to buy those goods and services.

Large private sector companies may or may not be good customers for social enterprises – in depends on what they’re selling but increasing numbers of social enterprises are finding that they are – but the starting point when looking for new customers is to aim to sell them something.

So a slightly more useful alternative to Denny’s point 1: “The first stage is for the social entrepreneur to produce a ‘hit list’ of corporates it wants to target. The list could be by geography or business sector.” might be to produce a ‘hit list’ of corporates that might want to buy the goods or services you sell.

Having done that, depending on how their company works, CSR people may or may not be able to help you get your foot in the door to get you a meeting with the person in the company who buys the stuff you’re selling – and may also point out the additional positive publicity the company would get from buying from a social enterprise (as a bonus) on top of getting some high quality products or services.

Denny’s conclusion is that: “No large private sector business is going to buy social value and impact from a social entrepreneur that is not professional about its marketing.”

Frankly, no large private sector business is going give a social entrepreneur money to deliver social value with no commercial value, that’s a charitable donation and they’d be giving their money to a charity. Social enterprises sell stuff.

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