Thursday, 20 November 2008

Social enterprise goes mainstream

If ever there was a day I had to post on this blog, it's today, Social Enterprise Day 2008. For the first time it's being celebrated all around the world which is fantastic.

Days like today are vital to get the word out about the benefits of social enterprise. It seems to be working with several of the mainstream press covering the event.

Speaking of mainstream I was delighted to be present at the National Business Awards earlier this week which as well as rewarding corporate and profit driven giants Rolls Royce and Diageo, handed out gongs to individuals who certainly don't have eyes full of pound signs.

Duncan Goose, founder of One Water, a bottled water company which ploughs all its profits into funding pump water system project in Africa took the entrepreneur of the year title and Harriet Lamb, executive director of The Fairtrade Foundation claimed the outstanding woman in business award.

The National Business Awards is a big deal. The likes of the Duke of Wessex and British Airways CEO Willie Walsh don't turn up to any old do but they were at the Grosvenor House Hotel on London's Park Lane on Tuesday night. But for me, mixing with royalty and business giants wasn't the highlight of the evening; it was the fact that socially focused organisations took some of the honours suggesting that at last social enterprise is beginning to be accepted as a legitimate business sector.

Yes, there are plenty of social enterprise-focused awards scheme but I think it makes more of a statement that a 'general' and mainstream initiatives includes them among its list of winners.

That's not to say social entrepreneurs should be complacent and believe there work is done. There's still a long way to go to convince everyone that social enterprise is the way forward.

I've spoken to many people about the sector and most respond 'don't you mean charities?' NO!! They're not charities; they're businesses. The difference is they make the world a better place.
Admittedly though it's not just public perception that needs to changes. Too many social entrepreneurs start up with a charity mindset and as a result spend too much time seeking grants.

Earlier this week, entrepreneur and social activist Robert Ashton sent me his thoughts on social enterprise. I agree with everything he said so I'll leave it to him to make the case for how the sector can go truly mainstream:

"One day all businesses will be social enterprises. But they will not be structured as they are now.

As public awareness of social responsibility grows so to will people's desire to do business with organisations that support the weaker members of our society. They will not compromise on quality, price or service. They will however positively discriminate in favour of the business that uses its resources in a positive and socially constructive way.

It is often easier to add value to your product or service by being supportive of others, rather than by increasing the specification to gain competitive advantage.

Too many of the people currently setting up social enterprises are starting with a charity mindset and background. This means their sole focus is the beneficiary group and they seek grants to subsidise their trading activity.

Tomorrow's social entrepreneur will focus on his or her marketplace, on satisfying existing and emerging market needs, whilst employing or supporting their beneficiary group."

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