Monday, June 1, 2009

A Fork in the Road (Goodbye Jonathan - and well done)

News came through last week of the departure of Jonathan Bland, CEO of Social Enterprise Coalition these last ten years.

First things first, it needs to be acknowledged by more people that he has done a fantastic job of building the profile of social enterprise in this country. While we can all argue the toss about how he has gone about it, there is no doubt in my mind that he deserves huge credit for getting us where we are, particularly in Government circles.

Here, on relatively low resources, he has helped develop awareness that, most recently, produced the commitment to 25,000 new social enterprise jobs. Whatever your views of his vision for social enterprise (and we all have our views on this) he has been a tenacious, passionate and effective advocate of social business and I think he sometimes doesn't get enough credit.

Personally, I believe Jonathan should feel deeply satisfied with his contribution down the years and I wish him the very best in his new life in Finland.

So what next for SEC and for the sector in general? It feels we are possibly at a fork in the road. Broadly speaking we divide into two camps, one that prefers close definition of social business, linking it with particular ownership and reward structures, as an `alternative model' to regular business and another camp which prefers a looser approach which looks as much at the social outcomes of any given organisation, regardless of its structure or ownership.

To date, the strategy of SEC, from what I can see, has been more towards definition. And, in a sense I can see why. Government in particular needs to be able to differentiate social enterprise from wider business if it is to treat it as a clearly distinct entity. Likewise, the public, human-nature even, seems to clamour for definition.

Part of this quite understandable. In a cynical age, many are keen for a label that santifies what might otherwise be quite ordinary profit-maximising businesses. Ownership represents a clear shorthand for what otherwise might not be a particularly verifiable concept.

The downside is that definition has been, for a long time now, the dominant discussion, rather than outcomes. Like a boomerang, it seems to return, no matter how hard you think you have thrown it.

Definition also has the more risky downside of sectioning-off social enterprise to the tiny minority of organisations with appropriate legal structures. So even a fast-growing sector will only ever, at its peak, perhaps encompass a relatively small number of businesses.

So strategically, the arguments rage. On the one hand, you have some saying that social business will never get out of the blocks unless it drops its fixation with definition and others saying that without definition, social business will become so amorphous as to risk becoming little more than high-octane CSR.

Where am I on this? Being the liberal-schniberal I am, I see merit on both sides of the debate as I understand it. I am worried about a world in which we cannot say who we are and what makes us different. Equally, I want us to be able to talk to the Shell's and Unilever's of this world about how they too might be able to become social businesses in the sense of achieving a better balance between profit, people and planet - plus, and this is CRUCIAL, giving transparency on this.

Can we square this particular circle? Well, any sector is, remember, full of, and indeed defined by diversity. And I am not just talking about political parties or movements. The CBI, TUC and Federation of Small Businesses all have different `wings' with varying aspirations while still managing, just about, to be cohesive and effective forces.

I see social business as similar. We need to embrace everyone who is committed to social reporting and a better balance between profit and other types of outcome. Personally I err towards definition along outcome-lines than structure lines, but this doesn't mean we cannot all stand together.

I think SEC, going forward needs to both acknowledge, publicly, that social enterprise as a number of `faces' (just as mainstream business does), support the varying needs of the sector in an even-handed way but, and this is perhaps the departure needed from current strategy, reach out to suitable private corporations to bring them into the fold. A bigger tent in other words.

Yes there are risks. Yes some people will jump up and down and form break-aways. And yes we should support them to do so. Any church worth its salt is a broad church.

We should not fear this. A broader `movement' will be a stronger one,in my view because the fundamentals of anyone who is part of it will be similar - business for multiple purposes, not just profit. For me, colours on mast at last, is what defines social business to me more than anything else.

And this is where SEC now needs to go while also keeping everyone we already have `on the bus'.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Thanks for the write Craig- what you say resonates and feels like a panoramic on the current situation. The question I find myself asking, is what levers will have to be pulled in order for the corporate and public sector supporters to step into the breach and see that social enterprise is about dirty hands and real outcomes. Once the stakeholders can see what's involved and to an extent, feel it, then we will have a chance at realising the dream, for each and every social entrepreneur worth their salt!