Angels dancing on the head of a pin?

There is a medieval legend that religious scholars spent time and effort debating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. Whether it is true or not, it has become a saying that illustrates the futile nature of some debates.

It’s an analogy I would draw when the circular debates start on the definition of the term social enterprise – it takes a lot of time and energy for no particular useful purpose.  I’m afraid that these types of discussions do not unify but serve a wider divisive purpose which marginalises and ensures that social enterprise will remain ‘an extra’ rather than having a ‘starring role’ in the future of the business world.

Pin dancers seem to have disproportionately loud and occasionally abusive voices and they marginalise the majority who choose not to engage in futility, rudeness and negativity but rather continue spending their time making a difference to others’ lives.   I know which one I would opt for any day.

There is a time for criticism, but I would always qualify that with the requirement to be constructive and explore ways forward.  I held a discussion at an academic conference last week about the Social Enterprise Mark and the vexatious issue of definition came up.  For me, these debates will carry on and we will listen and work with partners to try to address legitimate concerns – we have always said that the criteria are not set in stone.  I would also point out that we have consulted extensively in the development of the criteria over the years – but we can’t please everyone.  In addition, there will always be work that is underway, that we are not ready to talk about publicly; as I hinted at the conference, we are currently in discussions with trades unions and co-operative representatives.

Most importantly, engaging in the public domain about these debates means we are in danger of losing the plot and turning off potential converts to social enterprise in general.  The aim of the Mark was never to provide a ‘catch all’ or an exclusive club, but to enable the sector to come together, to promote itself more effectively to the outside world, in a way that is simple and uncomplicated.  By using a consistent message with a unique selling proposition, the term social enterprise can be understood by many more people. Already, there are almost 450 Mark holders integrating the Mark into their marketing strategies and in turn reaching thousands of their own stakeholders – all learning what’s different about social enterprise.

Anyone who has constructive suggestions about further criteria development, wanting to work in a co-operative and collaborative way, please get in touch:


4 responses to “Angels dancing on the head of a pin?

  1. Lucy,

    I sympathise with the bit of your position which is ‘I’d like to put my time and energy into selling my social useful product rather than justifying its existence’. I find it harder to sympathise with your position that debates on the definition of social enterprise serve no useful purpose when you’re leading an organisation that partly exists to define social enterprise.

    If you really think that then you could (more or less) end these debates by making the Social Enterprise Mark available to anyone who ticks a box next to the words ‘I believe my organisation is a social enterprise’.

    I don’t think you should do that but having taken the brave decision to retrospectively define an existing movement, the debates with people who identify themselves as part of that movement but don’t fit your definition are inevitably going to run and run.

    The time to be really worried is if/when these debates stop because people don’t care whether they can get the Mark or not.

  2. Hi Lucy, I want to look at a couple of points that stood out to me
    I cannot agree more about needing to have criticism, but we find it all to easy to complain without entering any thought into being constructive or providing suggestions how to change.
    I also believe that we need the mark, I am still today speaking to groups of 20 people where the vast majority do not know what a social enterprise is today, I think the mark is a way were we can get the wider public to understand some central concept of what we are and what we do. I know this will not always fit all, but I still think it is the right idea.
    Thanks for this and keep up the good work!

  3. Well said that whole ‘navel gazing’ what is a social enterprise thing is a bit boring and I think we all have bigger challenges to face. People get to hung up on format rather than function. I’m not a genius but its pretty simple social enterprise make money to invest back into a social purpose not to satisfy a shareholder etc some will qualify and some businesses wont but if the public are to have fair that this is a ‘different better way to do business we need a bench mark 🙂

  4. Pingback: We are on the brink of a new era, if only… | Beanbags and Bullsh!t

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