Further to a recent debate on the Guardian’s social enterprise network, focussing on ways social enterprises could engage with big business, I believe its time social enterprises engage more actively with large corporations and other businesses to increase their impact and financial sustainability, moving on from the traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda.
Over the past decade or so social enterprises have been encouraged to build their businesses in order to deliver government policy, through public sector procurement and other ways. Government strategies focused on this and the sector largely followed on. In fact, the sector was encouraged to take ownership under the last government, and sometimes it became difficult to distinguish government policy from our own growth and sustainability strategies – probably further exacerbated by the funding streams available centrally and regionally.
I’m not saying that all of this was bad, but it made us complacent. I remember at the time, my friend Nigel Kershaw from the Big Issue saying, ‘What about social enterprises which operate in the open market? Where are they in these discussions and policies?’ He pointed out that the Big Issue was borne out of a recession and had learned lessons about how to survive.
In these times of austerity, we still seem to be clinging to the same hopes that we had about turning towards government for answers.
These hopes are likely to be dashed.
We need to think much more independently of government; to promote the benefits of buying from a social enterprise; to be much more forthright and clear in our efforts to achieve this.
In discussions with Social Enterprise Mark holders, there is a sense of frustration that much publicised support from both government and the wider private sector is just rhetoric.
We need to start to hold them to account in the ways that they too do business. Supply chains must be challenged. If business and government really believe in social enterprise, why aren’t they buying from them more widely? I’m not just talking about the delivery of public services – what about catering, events management, HR advice, marketing – the list is endless.
Social enterprises, of course, struggle with the procurement processes of both government and business – which often favour the big ‘standardised’ product. But as a colleague pointed out, although it might be more complicated for the buyer, the rewards are greater AND benefits society and the environment (… trading for people and planet). Buying from social enterprises has the benefits of using resources efficiently to add value to the product or service and in addition, provides an alternative model for CSR. The Social Enterprise Mark guarantees this; therefore making a compelling case to buy from Social Enterprise Mark holders.
Just check out the directory of Mark holders – they are a comprehensive and ready source of genuine social enterprises that can prove it!