Monday, May 21, 2012

Why do so few social enterprises hit the commercial big time?

A year and a half into Stepping Out I now feel able to compare this with running a large charity.    One of the interesting things is that it is, on many levels, very similar to the early days in the charity.  It is about passion, finding clients, building a brand, delivering really great stuff.    There's really not that much different on one level.  Value is value, whether it's in the life of a disabled person or a council team seeking to spin out.

Psychologically, though I have had to go through a shift, one that has actually made me think quite a lot about the idea of social enterprise.   When with a pure for-good organisation, everything went through the prism of mission.  In short, we sometimes did things because they were right, regardless of whether they were good for the business.

These days, I can't function like this.   While social value - and the well-being of clients - is never far from the front of my mind I have to always always be doing the math.  Riding two horses is never easy,  I find. In a straight choice, I still tend to help, even if it doesn't make long-term business sense, but I know, that in doing so, there is a commercial cost.   

Of course, I know that the magic of social business is about precisely this - balancing commercial and social considerations in a new way.   I think what I am saying is that it is far more natural for most people to operate in one mode or the other.   Instead of holding the two in balance, I tend to oscillate between the two considerations.  On my 'social' days I have to constantly check myself for not watching the bottom line enough.  On my 'commercial' days, I ask myself if I am giving enough to warrant our claim to be a socially-oriented business.

Which brings me to my point here: social business, while appealing to our natural desire to be both commercial and social doesn't always go with the grain of how we operate day to day.   Most of us are essentially commercial or social in our approach.   Or, at best, we mould ourselves into one or the other type and operate consistently in that way.   Holding both in mind requires a kind of double-think (holding two simultaneous beliefs 'I am social' & 'I am commercial') which doesn't always come easy.   

Of course, this isn't always a zero-sum game.  You can use a commercial logic to build fanastic social outcomes.   And this is perhaps the larger point here.  I am perhaps coming from it from the position of a convert from the charity world.  But I think I might be onto one of the reasons why so few social enterprises really hit the big time commercially.

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