Friday, 8 August 2008

Social enterprise and the Olympics

Well, the Chinese certainly know how to put on a good show. Today's opening ceremony of the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing was spectular as China pulled out all the stops and staged an impressive event. The attention now moves to the sport and after what will no doubt be a memorable 16 days of achievements, the focus will then be on London which will stage the Olympics in 2012. But what role will social enterprises play?

Organisers keep going on about the Olympic legacy but it is vital that social enterprise is a big part of it. Some work is being done as the government has funded a national social enterprise Olympics partnership for 2012 led by Social Enterprise London.

The group has recognised that London has been handed the perfect opportunity to stage the most socially, environmentally and community beneficial Games ever. But it’s not just about busing in some school children to watch the fencing for free or recycling rubbish left behind behind by spectators; it is so much more than that.

London 2012 mustn’t be seen as big business money-making machines like Atlanta 1996 which was dubbed ‘The Coca-Cola Games’. Organisers have pledged to avoid it but as ever the proof will be in the pudding.

Key to the whole thing is the supplier tendering process. I’ve spoken to a lot of experts about what’s involved in securing a contract and many fear it is unfairly weighted in favour of large corporates which will come out the true winners. But it is vital this doesn't put social entrepreneurs off.

The Games give them the opportunity to take social enterprise into the mainstream. The sector suffers from a common misperception that it’s full of grant dependent charitable tree-huggers. But if hundreds, even thousands, of social enterprises can win Olympic contracts and be seen to not only be highly efficient, value for money business operations but also providing social and environmental benefits, than the sector will be hugely boosted.

So how social enterprises get involved?

When I heard Sir Tom Hunter speak earlier this year he said he was disappointed that more social enterprises don’t come together and form partnerships. Ten voices working towards are a cause are so much better than one and the Olympics provides the perfect opportunity to make Sir Tom happy.

Too often, entrepreneurs – even the social ones – are scared of partnering up with what they perceive as competitors but why? Afterall, we’re all in it for the same reasons so why not group together and pitch for a huge contract which on your own you couldn’t fulfil but together you can?

A report by SEL claims that appetite exists among big corporate businesses to collaborate with social enterprises. These firms have the muscle to win the big Olympic deals so social entrepreneurs should be offering their services. Of course, a major motivator for the big boys for going down such a route is making them look good in the eyes of customers but this shouldn’t stop social firms approaching them.

I’ll be following up with the London organisers to find out how many social enterprises have already won Games tenders and will report back. But whatever happens, let’s ensure social enterprise goes for gold and wins it in 2012.

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