Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Losing My Religion? The Theology of Social Enterprise

Debate about the essential nature of social enterprise, like that of the existence of God, will, I think never end. The theology of social enterprise, like the God-debate seems to hinge on the question of whether or not it is 'real' - as in distinguishable from other things which already have well-established names such as 'charity' or 'business'. Attempts to nail the issue include the Social Enterprise Mark and SE even now has its own legal form - the CIC - though note that a SE can also take other forms - a bit like the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Like a lot of people I find this debate pretty deathly. If I hear two people talking about it, I steer clear. It's a debate that will always be with us, I fear. Essentially, like religion, social enterprise comes down to whether you believe in it or not. It's about faith as much as reason, passion as much as logic. Like a religion it is full of contradictions and oddities. Even its believers do not agree on everything. Our Catholics prefer a strict interpretation of the scripture which tells us that only firms that are not in private ownership count among the Faithful. Our Protestants seek to open the door to everyone who believes in the idea of business run for multiple goals and that your state of mind matters more than what some old priests tell you.

Of course we all live in a real world, a world that, by its nature, craves definition and clarity. We have responded by making social enterprise something that the public can see, touch and feel. However in doing so, we have, possibly, robbed it of some of its subtlety and grace. We have closed its walls to the many who feel like social entrepreneurs but who, now, can't be - because they own their businesses or only give some of their money away, not the lion's share.

For me, a Social Enterprise Protestant, this is sad. People who seek to create social good through their own businesses deserve a place in our church. I would even welcome people who simply do their business in an ethical fashion rather than one which puts profit ahead of all other things. Welcome, then Johnson and Johnson, Richer Sounds.

I already hear the high-priests in my ears making the very good point that such a wide net devalues the religion altogether. By admitting everyone, we reduce what we're about to nothing very much. I can't really argue with that from a day-to-day point of view. To create a backable brand we probably do have to draw the line tighter than feels comfortable.

But, taking another lesson from great religions, I think it makes better longer term sense to think of SE a bit like a very big religion - like Christianity - which has lots of sects and believers - many of whom have very different ways of going about things. The underpinning beliefs, yes, are common, but that's what they are - beliefs. In our case, the underlying belief is that business for and with a social purpose. We all go at it in different ways - but the core of SE, like the Christian core, is based on, yes, a state of mind, an outlook (business for social purpose) and some basic beliefs, not a single core form. But they all live under the same 'Christian' label - and are much stronger for it. Why can't we be a similarly broad church?

Our challenge, long-term, I think, is to be less Catholic about SE, to have our own 'Reformation' and, ultimately, create the biggest business sector in the world. Diverse and plural - but progressive and dominant. It means going beyond today's pressure to be distinctive - but it may well be better long-term.

1 comment:

Alain Kongo said...

Great Post!

Social Entrepreneurship is indeed the way forward!
For a thorough presentation of Social Entrepreneurship and the impact it will have on the future of humanity,

I strongly recommend a recent book, Social Entrepreneurship, The Secret to Starting a Business Worth Living For.

A good review of the book can be found Here.