These days, we tend to talk freely and easily about social enterprise … but do we really have a common understanding of what we mean by it?
This was the thought that sprang to mind when I read of the demise of the ‘not-for-profit’ Hadrian’s Wall Trust as set up in 2012 to take the lead in managing the World Heritage site. HWT is sadly just one of many social enterprises lost to us through austerity over the past few years.
Addressing the definition question – Social Enterprise UK – a national umbrella group states that social enterprises should:
– Have a clear social and/or environmental mission set out in their governing documents
– Generate the majority of their income through trade
– Reinvest the majority of their profits
– Be autonomous of state
– Be majority controlled in the interests of the social mission
– Be accountable and transparent
In addition, in my own work primarily with community based social enterprises, I find it useful to differentiate between ‘social’ and ‘mainstream’ enterprise inasmuch as social enterprise is distinctively about ‘making money to do things’ rather than ‘doing things to make money’.
Digging a little deeper though … what about the passion which is arguably a defining feature, if not the defining feature, of social enterprise? What about the passion of dedicated people committed to key social and environmental causes and determined to overcome the inherent market failure which obstructs change and underpins the need for social enterprise in the first place? Given that the word ‘passion’ actually comes from the Latin ‘to suffer’, is it too sweeping to suggest that the fundamental root of social enterprise is the affront (akin to pain) which some individuals experience when confronted with social injustice and environmental complacency?
The idea of passion should surely be built into our definition somewhere don’t you think?
Which fosters two further thoughts:
… how should we view the fashion for ‘spinning out’ social enterprises from local councils and public service agencies as a solution to sustaining basic local community services? Are they really much more than just mainstream enterprises in disguise? How can we help turn expediency to advantage and ensure that these organisations embody real passion for ethical social change?
… and more importantly, how can we more meaningfully support those truly passionate individuals motivated to drive social and environmental change in areas where basic freedom and human dignity is at risk? In particular how can we inject the business acumen necessary to help focus the essential ‘making money’ activities which allow social enterprises ‘to do things’ without eroding their core social or environmental mission?
I am not sure where that leaves the Hadrian’s Wall Trust … and potentially many more social enterprises that will also go to the wall before we have the answers.