Many charities and local authorities are now running services and activities under the banner of ‘social enterprise’ to contribute to their sustainability (both as services and organisations).
This perhaps helps to explain why there’s such confusion about what social enterprise is: some organisations presenting their structure and form as the basis for their identity, while others present their actions as their basis.
But... if it means that communities are benefiting through these ‘branded’ trading activities by groups not structured as social enterprises, then how far should we feel ‘protective’ over our identity? After all, there’s a compelling and logical argument along the lines of “as long as they job’s getting done and supporting people is at the focus of what we do, what does it matter how the organisation is structured...” however, taken to its conclusion this argument surely takes us down the path of the end justifying the means (something the Prince of Demark wrestled with famously in Hamlet).
Muhammad Yunus has waded into this historical debate with his refreshed definition of a ‘social business’ (broadly speaking - that as long as you’re primarily benefitting people in need then you ‘tick the box’). But there’s surely a risk with such loose definitions that many privately owned businesses will start to add to their ‘green-wash’ with ‘social-wash’, and that charities will further muddy the waters by having an ongoing reliance on grants and subsidies while presenting what they do as ‘social enterprise’.
Social enterprise is surely about being a sustainable business that’s rooted in the open marketplace and which exists to principally benefit those in need; it shouldn’t matter who’s in its employ or on its board – these things are fixed and immutable. Otherwise, as officers change, markets, customers, and society become confused by different peoples’ values changing the focus and purpose of what that organisation does and how it does it.
But confusion aside, that social enterprise has challenged and inspired such a growing change in common business practices amongst private businesses and charities is surely an impressive achievement and something we can take pride in?