Tag Archives: social enterprise identity

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: media@socialenterprisemark.org.uk


Suffering from social enterprise identity confusion?

One of the challenges that the social enterprise sector currently faces is clarity about its own identity versus the exponential explosion of company labels, such as:  Social Business, Social Purpose Business, Social Purpose Organisations, Ethical Business, Social Enterprise, to name just a few.

What do these all mean and do the terms have any meaning to anyone outside the sector, or even within it?

Do they count for anything or are they just applied by the business on a self promotional basis? For instance, A4E describe themselves as a ‘social purpose business’ despite much publicity about the high proportion of profits that end up lining the pockets of individual shareholders.

Many people argue that what we call ourselves doesn’t matter, it is only the social/environmental impact that counts rather than how we get there.  Of course impact is extremely important.  But without looking at what motivates that business and the genuineness of that motivation, you risk only looking at the finished dish and its impact on the waistline, whilst ignoring the ingredients and the recipe.  The way that we do business has to be an important part of the impact equation – and we know that consumers care about it.

Who cares about profits if the service is delivering?

This question ignores the fundamental principle that consumers are increasingly questioning the ethics of the way that service is being delivered, look at the food business – the growth of Fairtrade and other ethical Marks.

Why should it be that ‘shareholder profit margins’ are the overriding consideration in the delivery of a public sector contract to help people get into jobs? Why isn’t the public asking this question?  Looking at the response to the banking crisis, I think they are beginning to.

I know that not all businesses behave in this way, but it is only by being clear about what we stand for that we can hope to benefit from our unique selling point – social enterprises are genuinely trading for people and planet and the profit that we make is for public good.  The Social Enterprise Mark is the way to prove it and for the term social enterprise to mean something.

In a recent Senscot bulletin, Laurence DeMarco talks about the need for an ‘asset lock’ to ensure that a social enterprise is genuine – we agree.  We require that all Mark holders have an ‘asset dissolution clause’ which ensures that on wind-up, assets cannot be redistributed for shareholder gain – this is checked annually.  Over and above this we also require an ‘asset redistribution clause’ which limits the amount that shareholders can take from the business on an annual basis.

The Social Enterprise Mark is singing a constant and consistent tune in standing by its position and I know many people world-wide agree.