Thursday, 20 January 2011

Respite care row drags in social enterprise

Yesterday Chris Smith from Swarm Communications wrote a really good piece in the Guardian  on the desperate need for social enterprise to communicate to those outside our cosy tent, what we are and why we matter. I would say that as he generously quotes me, and other than the rather challenging photo of me in what I now regard as dodgy earrings, I come off rather well as do SEL members Fifteen, Belu, Greenworks, Divine and our old friend Rob Greenland the man behind the fantastic Social Business Blog.

SEL staff have had some fun with the above photo today with an impromptu caption competition, front runners at the moment are "How big!?" and "This big". Feel free to join in, you can only do better.

The point Chris makes, that the wider public need to get what we do in order to join us, you might think is self evident in its urgency. He goes on to say that our recent association with the Big Society might have got us out to a wider audience but that could be tricky as the Big Society remains rather ill defined itself. Getting stories out about the smaller, newer, cutting edge social enterprises like Bikeworks or Responsible IT is the job of agencies like SEL and I hope we are doing our job well but I agree we need to do more and fast. Worth a read.

This morning the row over cuts to respite care for families of disabled children is a case in point. On BBC Breakfast the manager of the Watford MENCAP centre for respite care was interviewed and was angry at the cuts, and angry about "all this talk about social enterprise". "What was it?" she asked. "Where are the models for us to follow? How will it help us with these cuts?" she went on to say. These are all good questions and just as Government talks enthusiastically about social enterprise they must offer people support to explore the model. It is the screaming absence of specifics or resource to access expertise that leads to people getting angry, and angry with us. As Chris Smith says, social enterprise needs to communicate its story, we need to do this so that folk in Watford can make an informed decision about whether its right for them.  


  1. I think part of communicating the social enterprise story is being honest about what social enterprise can't do.

    In some cases the answer to 'How will social enterprise help us with these cuts?' is either 'it's won't' or 'it won't help you replace the service you've lost but it might help you to do something else'.

    I'm dubious about the idea that there's a definitive concept of social enterprise that people fundamentally don't understand and that things would be easier for social enterprises if they were made to understand it through publicity campaigns.

    Most people understand that there are organisations that have a purpose other than just generating profit and that these organisations sometimes sell goods and services to (help) pay for what they do.

    I think that's a solid enough to get on with spread the message about social enterprise (or socially enterprising activity, whoever its carried out by) by example.

  2. Dear David, thanks for the comment.

    I agree with you, the problem is persuading everybody else. To be honest I never really understood our movements fixation with governance. For years I thought I was missing the point and folk knew something I didn't. Now I'm an old hand at this I can confidently say that those that think governance models in themselves ensure social impact, are sadly mistaken. The fact that we have camps that advocate their model in preference to others only adds to the confusion of the uninitiated. As you say, having a purpose other than generating profit is good for a kick off. I would add that defining your social impact would be the place to start and then try to make a profit with what ever model helps you do both to best effect would be the next thing to do.

    I'm not sure how much longer our movement has to navel gaze on this. Events are overtaking the kind of thinking that says you can hold on to the IP of an idea by staking out your definition. I don't think you can. When people call something they can understand a social enterprise, and you say it isn't and offer an explanation as to why not, that they can't understand, the clock is ticking. They will either continue to use the term social enterprise to describe what they think it means or use another term. Either way hardliners lose out.

    That is not to say that we should abandon what is unique about our members social motivation, only accept that in running businesses in the real world, sometimes money has to be borrowed, homes mortgaged, staff asked to work hard for less than top wages and shareholders paid back before reinvestment. Its a question of balance, because social impact comes from somewhere in the P&L, and something often has to give.

    There is no magic formula, no perfect form or silver bullet, just people doing their best for, knowing my members as I do, quite obviously the right reasons. And for those who are up to no good with social enterprise? We don't have to tap their phones to know something's wrong, and making them adhere to a single model won't stop them either, but the truth, I believe, will owt.

    In the meantime lets encourage the widest number of newby's to think about social impact and ethical behaviour and help them develop their entrepreneurial skills so that more businesses than even are delivering social change. In that way we can expand the social enterprise movement, find space for the innovators who want to experiment with the term and have answers for some of the really big questions like Freedom of Information, in or out? Quite enough to be going on with, don't you think?

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