I am having a very Big Society week not least because I met up with Lord Nat Wei for tea at the House of Lords on Monday to talk about our Transition Institute. Lord Wei, is the man tasked by the Government to promote Big Society by explaining to folk what it is and encouraging people to get involved. Back at the cosy Members Bar, sitting at the table next to the imperious Lord Mandelson we had a lively discussion, and after some very searching and challenging questions, Nat seemed really enthusiastic about the group and has signed up. He shared my sense that there is a real need for a support structure to bring best practice and promotion to the independent delivery models that are emerging out of public services.
Whilst Lord Wei and I met to talk about Transitions, after our meeting, I could not help but think about the relationship between social enterprise and the big society. It has seemed to many, myself included, that the Big Society narrative of a more dynamic relationship between the state and the communities it serves has a great deal to do with social enterprise. Long before it was easy to say so, I have been advocating social enterprise as a real improvement to statutory service. Every day of my working life I have the privilege to work with companies that are very clear about their social impact without having the sense of entitlement than those operating in a mono-market can often develop.
So is there a problem? Well there might be. You see social enterprises are businesses, without profit there is no social impact. They can only achieve the excellence and innovation that excites consumers as in the case of Bikeworks, cycling shops that gives everyone, regardless of ability or means, access to cycling, if there are contracts in place to provide the service. Products can and are being sold to augment the companies profitability and volunteers are always welcome, but I do not know of any social enterprise that predicates its business model on volunteering. Indeed any entity that did, would not, by most people's definition, including mine, be a social enterprise. So profitability and community engagement yes; volunteering, no.
Furthermore as I tweeted only today, we were having an interesting time explaining social enterprise in the first place, adding Big Society adds another layer. It can hardly be a surprise that folk are struggling, so more needs to be done to clarify what we are about and more needs to be spent on helping people get with the program. If its possible, I can see us identify with the ethics of a big society, but volunteering aside because that's the voluntary sector's gig and not ours.