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The Advantage of Social Enterprise


Rob Greenland over at The Social Business has written a piece about how the ‘table’ that social enterprise has fought so hard to get a place at has collapsed.  I am assuming Rob means the table where policy is thrashed out and funds are allocated.

The high political table.

The table of the bureaucrats and the planners.

Rob’s analysis is that this table has collapsed.  They have no cash to spend since the bankers have grabbed it all.  So “What is a social entrepreneur meant to do now?” Rob asks.

Well I think the collapse of this table could be just the tonic that the social enterprise sector needs.

The sectors’ advantage is not in being a cheaper route to market for bureaucrats  – implementing their policies and plans (although this may be a legitimate benefit it CAN offer).  Its’ advantage lies in the ability of social entrepreneurs to tell stories of social change, social injustice and progress. In being able to attract, retain and develop talented and committed people who share in the vision and have the potential to manifest it.  In harnessing the potential of those affected by injustice and using it to drive progress.

So instead of trying to manoeuvre to catch the crumbs from the top table perhaps the sector should focus on sharpening vision, improving stories, and building a movement that people will want to join and work in because of its autonomy, independence and creativity; its ability to provide fulfillment and a decent wage – not because of the funding streams that it can secure (along with KPIs, evaluation frameworks and other game playing  inducements attendant with the mainstream).

When we are sat at the top table we have our backs to the real social enterprise marketplace.

Of course the sector needs to maintain good relationships with the ‘top table’.  It needs to influence, lobby, advise and occasionally disrupt.  If it can secure investment on its terms than so much the better.  But it needs to ensure that the money and power available does not corrupt – as it so often has.  That the pull of the cash does not lure us away from core purpose and beliefs.  That it does not allow us to kid ourselves that the latest funding stream to ‘do things to people’ might just work – this time – if we can only get our hands on the cash.  The social enteprise sector has to have the guts to be uncompromising on vision, values and beliefs.  It has to maintain integrity.

This requires the sector to develop an entreprenurial management and leadership culture.  A progressive mindset.  Progressive management.  Not Political.

The social entrepreneur needs to be comfortable and competent at managing and leading through vision, values, social goals and objectives and then relying on creativity and innovation to secure sustainable investments.  They must be obsessed with the social change they are trying to deliver and the recruitment and retention of a tribe of professionals and volunteers who can help.  Not with reading the political runes.  They need to promote change, not maintenance, autonomy not dependence (on the top or any other table), courage not conventionality.

The advantage of social enterprise is that it can be transformational.  People will join a transformational movement and bring to it their passion, creativity and hard work.  Turn it into another transactional part of the prevailing bureaucracy and this advantage will be lost.

And finally of course any organisation can be a social enterprise regardless of structure.  Many ‘for profits’ have learned how to create social change and a sustainable profit!

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  1. February 19, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    Thanks for the link MIke. I think you’ve read a bit too much into what after all was a 200 word voxpop for a newspaper. You seem to think that the table I refer to is the table where the powerful sit. Instead I was using it as a metaphor for the economy – and I would agree with you that the collapse of the established way of doing business presents massive opportunities for social entrepreneurs.

    I would also agree that we have to be careful not to just become a low-cost delivery arm for government. But it’s clear that that is a big part of the agenda at the moment – and for all I have concerns about public service delivery, I have bigger concerns about leaving the public sector to carry on with business as usual. My piece was alerting us to the fact that for those social businesses which want to deliver public sector contracts, things are going to get tougher.

  2. February 20, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    That’s me all over Rob, adding 2+2 and getting 22.

  3. daniel
    November 15, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    you havent been able to hit the nail on the head

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