On being a political animal

Running a social enterprise... like being a political animal?

We are well into political party conference season, a time when a light shines on all parties and their policies.

Prompted by a discussion with a colleague, the political dimension of leading a social enterprise got me thinking. I mean political rather than Political. The triple bottom line of running a social enterprise is often talked about – profit, people planet – but the forth ‘p’ of politics is not often mentioned and I think features much more highly in running a social enterprise than many other types of business.

Running a social enterprise is a political balancing act – because it involves so many people and their own agendas (good and bad). It requires an insight into what drives behaviour and to react in ways that might seem alien to your own personality and culture. Many social entrepreneurs are activists – they have a cause, but in running a business you have to make compromises that mean the best for your business but not a compromise ‘too far’, leading to mission drift.

Social enterprises also want to be inclusive and pride themselves on this. However, running a business requires focus and dedication to making it work. Many ideas presented by partners and colleagues might be great as might many projects, but if they don’t stack up business-wise there has to be a resource that is going to offset that money drain (like a grant or contract). Having previously run the South West social enterprise network, RISE, it was clear at the end of the contract with the South West RDA, that this was the case – there was a demand for the services but no-one who was willing to pay for them. It requires hard decisions to be made.

There is a fair amount of Political interference too. At the local level social enterprises can become pawns in a much bigger game that local authorities are playing… for example, nominally supposedly supporting social objectives and then giving contracts based on price alone. Of course at the national level, Politicians are constantly remoulding social enterprise into whatever they want it to be, fitting it to their own political ideologies. That is why we need to be clear about our own identity and business model – keeping focused and using political judgement along the way.

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