Before Christmas I wrote about resisting the temptation to sanctify social entrepreneurs and I think the same goes for over-selling social enterprise.
As a social enterprise supporter of the past 15 years or so, I’m naturally delighted when the sector gets a positive profile-raising plug, but I’m equally dismayed when someone goes over the top about what social enterprise has achieved. And the praise is usually coupled with a side-swipe at mainstream business.
It’s all too easy to cast the private sector as the villain and social enterprises – assuming that implies the business is ‘not-for-private-profit’ – as the answer we’ve all been waiting for to treat society’s ills. Reality, of course, is much more complex – there are good and bad private sector and social enterprise businesses, and both may have social impact (ref David Floyd’s social enterprise myth-buster).
I also think scale is relevant. Big isn’t automatically better, but until social enterprises (individually or collectively) make enough difference to enough people’s lives, I believe they won’t offer a realistic alternative to mainstream business models – holding the moral high ground will never be enough. This isn’t to knock small scale, community-rooted enterprise – it can demonstrate a better way of doing business – but we shouldn’t pretend it’s going to change the world until it’s more ubiquitous and until many more people benefit.
In an imperfect world, I’m happy to credit a large scale solution to a social problem rather than condemn it outright for being big and motivated by making a profit for shareholders. What I’m not happy about is mainstream contractors (they all seem to have numbers in their names these days) providing public services badly and passing themselves off as social businesses. We know who they are…
There’s a well-worn saying in customer care – ‘under-promise and over-provide’. In other words, say you’ll deliver an order within a week and have it with your customer the next day, not the other way around. The same should go for social enterprise which has a rich heritage that goes back at least 165 years to the Rochdale Pioneers – founding fathers of the co-operative movement.
Recent difficulties for the Co-op Bank show how easily reputations for ‘better business’ can be shaken, so it’s more important than ever to manage expectations about what social enterprise can achieve. If we get carried away with our own publicity and hold it up as the solution to all economic, social and environmental ills, and it’s then found wanting, we could see customers taking their business back to mainstream suppliers – condemning social enterprise as ‘all mouth and no trousers’.
Slowing the spin about social entrepreneurshttps://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/slowing-the-spin-about-social-entrepreneurs
David Floyd social enterprise mythbusterhttp://www.theguardian.com/social-enterprise-network/2013/oct/03/private-sector-social-enterprise-ethics
A shorter version of this blog first appeared on the Social Enterprise East of England blog site