Monday, January 17, 2011

Are you a Social Enterprise Yourself, Then??

'So is Stepping Out a social business'? I get asked this quite a lot, occasionally by potential customers. It's a fair question. The simple and honest answer is 'No, it ain't'. The profits, or rather those that it makes, go to me, the sole owner.

How do I defend this, when I'm going around preaching the virtues of social enterprise? Well, firstly, as you know, I feel that social social enterprises are defined too narrowly - namely by how you use profit and how much of your business you own. Let's focus on this for a second. How many businesses do you know that operate in the social space that are particularly profitable? The whole discussion about 'reinvesting profit' is normally pretty academic for most of these businesses. Truth is, there ain't much profit to begin with.

So then we're discussing ownership. Ownership is a literal, legal thing. You own something when it has value. This can be either monetary value or the other things ownership brings - like control. Owning something normally involves one or the other of these benefits. For me, it is mostly the latter. Ownership of Stepping Out brings me control over it. When I need other people's help with this business in terms of finance or especial commitment, I will share ownership. At some point, I may even share this with employees. But when it is appropriate, fair and just to do so, not when the CIC regulator or trademark says I do.

By fixing on profit and ownership, the social enterprise mindset overlooks the crucial question of how social entrepreneurs tend to use time. We do not tend to have built up capital so time is still our principal resource. I give away about a quarter of my own time each month. I see it as my contribution. I don't want any praise for this, but it's my decision. It is, however, time which isn't going on building the profitability of my business. It is time taken from the normal business of business to do my tiny bit.

Extending the tent to the many people who use their time and resources for social purposes - people who use time as well as money in an entrepreneurial way would be, for me, welcome. Because the brutal truth would be that if I registered Stepping Out as a CIC, I would need to give up virtually all of the things I am doing outside of work in order to get my 50% of profit required to eke out my life. Yes, there'd be profit to give away - but next to the benefits of my donated time I am unconvinced it would be a better way forward.

Overall, there is more to being a social entrepreneur and enterprise than being owned by other people and giving half of your profit away. It's about how you use your time too. This is the one resource you have to enrich either yourself or others. How you use it is one of life's biggest decisions. It should therefore be part of the modern account of how we describe the social entrepreneur.

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