Ask a group of people to define 'social enterprise' and you're likely to get different answers. I've experienced it myself on several ocassions. There's no one definition with social businesses meaning different things to different people.
The problem with that however means some individuals may set up what they call a social enterprise but might not been seen as so by others. Most importantly, investors may get confused which of course is bad for the sector as a whole, while at the same time entrepreneurs running organisations which actually could be classed as social enterprises may not see themselves as such and fail to attract relevant investment.
With all this in mind, I was pleased to spot an attempt at clarity. A report by Venturesome, the social investment fund established by the Charities Aid Foundation, puts forward what it says are three models for social enterprises:
Model 1: Enterprises operating a profit making trading activity that has no direct social impact, but they give some or all of their profit to a charity. Examples: trading subsidiaries of charities like Save The Children’s Christmas card business and companies which promise to give a percentage of their profits to charitable projects such as Belu water.
Model 2: Enterprises operating trading activities that have a direct social impact but manage a trade-off between producing a financial return and social impact. Examples: fair trade businesses like Cafédirect, microfinance funds, such as The Grameen Bank. Test question: can you increase the social impact of the firm by decreasing financial returns? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the organisation is a model 2 organisation.
Model 3: Enterprises engaging in a trading activity that has a direct social impact but also generates a financial return in direct correlation to the social impact created. Examples: Windfarms, FareShare 1st, farmers’ markets. Test question: Can you increase the social impact of the firm by decreasing the financial returns? If the answer is ‘no’ then the organisation is a model 3.
Venturesome also calls for a rethink about how social investors chose to invest. Many, it says, are beginning to recognise that economic forces can shape social problems such as market forces, misalignment of price incentives etc. As a result, the report claims, they should use a calculation of risk and reward which is different to purely commercial investors.
As Venturesome says the report should be used to provoke a debate in the sector. The issue wasn't so important a few years ago but with new social enterprises being set up every day as new social entrepreneurs enter the market it is important to nail exactly what they are doing and what they want to achieve.
It should also provoke government ministers into better supporting the sector. In particular, in my view, the Community Interest Company initiative needs to be reviewed. The excellent Nigel Kershaw of Big Issue Invest made a renewed plea this week for the kind of tax breaks enjoyed by traditional investors to be made available to those backing social enterprises. I couldn't agree more. At the same time, the dividend cap on CICs needs to be reviewed because, as I've heard from several social entrepreneurs, it is proving a dis-incentive to investors.
Let the debate begin!