Explain briefly and clearly what social enterprise is – create a tagline to reflect the ideals of the organisation and its social aims
As a director of a medium-sized social enterprise that delivers youth facilities and services through a customer-focused revenue-generating model, I met recently with the local council leader to seek his support for some new facilities we hope to add.
His opening and rather blunt gambit was to accuse: “If this was a business, you’d be bankrupt”, swiftly followed by every social entrepreneur’s favourite question: “What’s in it for you?”. Ignoring, as I always try to, the urge to ask whether he opened his meetings with local charities in the same way, I countered with a slightly surprised, “well, it is a business, and we’re not!” and proceeded to spend the best part of an hour explaining to him what social enterprise is all about, and how what’s ‘in it for us’ is, heaven forbid, earning a living doing something worthwhile that delivers social value for the community.
Sadly, five years into my social enterprise journey, still being somewhat affronted by this kind of attitude, I am more resigned to it than shocked. It belies a suspicion about social enterprise that those working on the ground in the sector must face and deflect on an almost daily basis. And it continues to reflect a failure, for sure on our part as an organisation, but also collectively as a sector, to get an effective message out there into our communities about what social enterprises are and why we do it.
More than just ignorance, the leader’s questions implied an underlying suspicion about motivations — one that, importantly, serves to differentiate us from the traditional charity sector. On the whole, and certainly at the small-scale community level, directors of charities are not and cannot be paid for their work. This is sufficient to allay suspicions, especially when combined with a model of delivering services for free funded by grants or fundraising. Equally, if we were just charging for services as a private sector company in pursuit of profit, that would be straightforward.
But in social enterprises, even wholly not-for-profit ones like ours, where directors can be paid (even if they often are not), mixing up the commercial approach and the social motivation simply confounds. In the context of an ill-defined, and little-understood model, we must instead be ‘in it for the money’ – a laughable irony that will not be lost on most readers of this column. Or even worse still, in it for the money while pretending to be in it for the social good.
Echoed in this is the hand-wringing debate of the sector’s higher echelons about ‘fake’ social enterprises, and certainly that muddies the waters, but it is not, fundamentally, the point. This leader didn’t ask these questions of me because he was aligning our organisation with some multi-million pound business masquerading as a social enterprise in order to make huge sums out of public sector contracts in health or prison services. Rather he asked because, on the ground, in local communities, the concept of delivering social good in an enterprising way is simply alien.
It matters that we do something to change that. It matters not just because it is demoralising and depressing, but because it is by collaborating and working in partnership that social enterprises and public sector bodies will maximise the social impact they can have. They can only do this if they understand one another and if the communities of which they are an increasingly integral part understand them in turn.
Without this understanding, in which definition plays a key part, social enterprises face an uphill battle against the tide of half-truths and suspicion that is all to quick to fill the clarity void.
While I hesitate to do so, seeking this clarity means entering the lofty discussions that continue unabated, be it in conference halls, meeting rooms, or virtual networks, about defining social enterprise. From my position on the ground, I don’t think this is about the issues that sometimes preoccupy those involved in it – be it about how and why social enterprise matters, deciding on the ‘legitimising’ proportion of traded income or the distinctions between companies limited by shares or by guarantee.
What we need is to develop and use a simple tagline that encapsulates in a nutshell what social enterprise is all about. Most importantly of all, we need to communicate that message widely and with gusto if we want the sector to live up to the current hype and achieve its hoped for and much-lauded transformative impact.
So what is the tagline to be? Well, the guy who runs our social enterprise on a day-to-day basis, can often be heard telling bemused teenagers who are being encouraged to become part of the CIC membership: “We’re like a charity only we earn our own money.” It is a simple sentence that conveys both our social motivation, and our commercial approach.
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