Saturday, 19 April 2008

Social enterprise: Serious business

This blog celebrates the UK's most exciting, dynamic and inspiring business sector: social enterprises.

Social enterprises are businesses which devote all or a large part of their profits to social or environmental causes.

And before you say it, they're not charities! They are businesses through and through; run by drven and ambitious entrepreneurs who are using business principles to make a difference.

As a small business journalist, I've met and interviewed many entrepreneurs but time and time again it's the social entrepreneurs that inspire me the most. So much so, that I'm currently planning my own social enterprise. I've been thinking about it for a while but what convinced me to actually turn my idea into reality was my attendance at Voice 08, the annual conference of the Social Enterprise Coalition in Liverpool earlier this year.

Around 1,000 delegates were at an event which oozed energy. "Nothing can hold us back", proclaimed the coalition's CEO Jonathan Bland as he wound up day one of the conference. "We are here to harness the power of the market to create the social and environmental change our world needs," he continued. An over the top statement from a tree hugging hippy you may think but I beg to differ.

They are not tree huggers, they are not even charities but what they are are businesses. Proper companies who care about making money, who want to make a profit. The difference is the revenue raised doesn't go to faceless shareholders; it benefits society. The UK is currently home to 55,000 social enterprises turning over a collective £27bn and employing 500,000 people. Think they're tree huggers now?

In the past, the call to bring about community and environmental change has been driven by the public demand for ethical products. But now it's businesses which are driving the revolution. Social enterprises aren't new; firms have been doing it successfully for years - The Big Issue, Cafe Direct and Divine Chocolate to name a few. That record looks set to continue. Can 1,000 people at a single conference in Liverpool be wrong?

You may accuse me of overstating the situation but I'm happy to argue my point. Social enterprises are reinventing the rules of business and competing in mature markets with corporates that have been playing the game for years. That trend combined with the public's ever increasing desire for ethics and transparency from the companies they deal with, means that far from being the exception, social enterprises are likely to one day become the norm.

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