Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Shakespeare can teach us about social enterprise – better ‘to be’ or simply ‘to do’?

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?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

in praise of the local library - could it save us all?

With the cuts and reductions in the amounts of resource available to local enterprise agencies, community group networks, other local infrastructure bodies, etc; we’re seeing the amount of support available to start-up groups, enterprises (both social and private), charities and so on rapidly diminishing...

But this is at a time when there’s universal recognition of the increasing need for them to be supported, and for them to gain the knowledge that they need to not only be sustainable, but also prosper...

I wonder then if I can suggest that rather than bemoan the state of things, that instead we go to our local library.

Take my local library in Todmorden – it has shelves of books and CD-ROMs on different aspects of setting up and managing an enterprise or other group (covering everything from import/export to employment law, marketing to book-keeping and everything in-between), a copy of the Grant Making Trusts Directory (reference only) and the national Voluntary Sector Agencies Directory, free internet access, a coffee machine, late night opening... its surely therefore also an obvious focal point for groups seeking support – they could maybe make use of the big tables to meet together around? (And just to ‘complete this virtuous circle’, Todmorden library was originally gifted to the town by a social enterprise – the local Co-operative Society).

Of course, some of you may be unsure how to navigate these vast unchartered shelves of knowledge and tools where everything is logged using secret coded numbers – fear not, for there are always librarians on hand: kind souls who take pity on the uninitiated and will help you to find what you most need.

Our cousins over the pond in the US are already starting to think in these terms, looking at libraries afresh as to the role they can play in supporting not only how we aquire the skills we need in the 21st century, but also the business community.

So... when was the last time you visited your local library?