When you buy an item of wooden furniture, do you check it’s made from certified sustainable timber? Do you seek assurance from your plumber that he’s qualified to repair your leaky tap? Accreditation in one form or another forms a major part of our daily lives. As these two examples show, they can also serve quite different purposes.
In one, you want to eat at your new dining room table with a clear conscience knowing you’ve not destroyed the planet in the process. In the latter, you want to avoid a flood in your bathroom by employing someone who knows how to fix things. What links both examples is third party endorsement that the product or service you need has been independently validated by a trusted source as a legitimate match.
But in our world, where doing good is your raison d’etre , how do your buyers know you’re walking the talk? Since the pilot Social Enterprise Mark in 2007 and the full launch in 2010, we have learned an incredible amount, not least from the labelling world. Learning from experiences in Fairtrade and the food world has really helped us focus on what’s actually important – that’s the certification process and remaining true to it. We have not been diverted by other marks or badges. In many ways the social enterprise world has created great confusion with a plethora of similar sounding terms leaving people baffled, unsure and talking at cross purposes (particularly if you are trying to set one up!).
We created the Social Enterprise Mark to reduce confusion – it is the short-cut to recognising genuine social enterprises. The Mark acts to simplify and bring people together through their shared social values and common business approach.
We arrived at the criteria by working and consulting the social enterprise world and we have consistently applied the Mark with the support of our Certification Panel, who take their job extremely seriously and were specially selected for their expertise. The Panel are key to maintaining our integrity – they are separate and help guide us through complex applications and compliance issue. They apply their considerable knowledge and learning from the past 5 years, which is stored in our Certification Manual, the tool for consistency in new applications and renewals. To quote one of our Mark holders, Plymouth University’s pro-vice chancellor Julian Beer “As the social enterprise sector expands and opportunities for fake social enterprises increase, the Social Enterprise Mark is crucial in recognising genuine social enterprises. Only by meeting robust criteria, overseen by the independent Certification Panel, do social enterprises attain certification.”
I would like to make clear that, where an organisation has failed to meet these standards and criteria, we have removed their licence (we are not a membership organisation). Where businesses do not qualify we tell them and offer guidance in how they can change how they operate. Some do and others don’t. That’s fine by us. By putting a marker in the sand we’re giving people a choice and clear position on which to make decisions, whether as a prospective Mark holder or a buyer of goods or services.
This is fundamental to our existence and it’s for this reason we do not believe in self-assessment. Of course offering such clarity does cost money. There are plenty of good businesses out there doing good work, but they are not social enterprises and will never get the Social Enterprise Mark. This point is key because shareholder profit motives leads to behaviours associated with this structure, ie making money for shareholders takes precedence over ethical issues if you have to make a return to investors (look at the concern about the ownership of the Co-operative Bank).
Dr Mark Reynolds of Integrated Care 24 explains it well:
“Operating as a certified social enterprise means the ethos of the organisation is confirmed as “for patients, not for profit” with any surplus being applied to service development, and so to public benefit, rather than to private profit. The Mark helps us prove our social enterprise values and purpose in delivering the best possible care, within very tight resources, to our patients.”
Health is just one of those sectors undergoing massive change at the minute and where the term social enterprise can mean many different things. Having one Mark helps to make it easier and more credible when you need to stand up and be counted.
We’ve just published our Annual Review which shows our certified social enterprises contribute £5.4 billion to the economy. These certified social enterprises use the Mark to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Hence the Mark is revered as the only authority for independent validation of a company’s social enterprise credentials, which explains our high levels of customer loyalty.
Our Mark holders are using their Social Enterprise Mark to foster change, embedding the Mark at the very heart of their organisations. It is being used by newly formed health social enterprises to enable culture change internally and externally to instil trust and confidence with patients, staff and communities.
For the education sector, it’s a similar story: the Mark helps to create a culture and ethos of social enterprise in students and staff, as well as supporting the development of social enterprise in the local community.
We have exciting growth plans for the future, building on our work which demonstrates the best of social enterprise, not just talking, but walking the social enterprise talk.