Comment: Wheels ready to come off social enterprise bandwagon

NO DOUBT about it, the height of business chic at the moment is social enterprise. There are dozens of groups out there supporting the movement, from the Scottish Borders Social Enterprise Chamber right up to the Highlands and Islands Social Enterprise Zone. Others without a specific remit are also getting in on the act – the Scottish Institute for Enterprise chose the social theme for this year’s Young Innovators Challenge.
Kristy Dorsey. Picture: Robert PerryKristy Dorsey. Picture: Robert Perry
Kristy Dorsey. Picture: Robert Perry

Earlier this week, Oxfordshire became Britain’s inaugural “social enterprise county”. Closer to home, Scotland’s first-ever social enterprise accelerator programme, LaunchMe, was unveiled in Edinburgh earlier this month. And, of course, yesterday was Social Saturday, a national day to celebrate the UK’s rising social economy. It was marked in Edinburgh by what was billed as Scotland’s first social enterprise festival at St Andrew Square Gardens.

Combining a profitable business model with the ethos of making the world a better place is a compelling proposition. Only those with a heart of stone would fail to be moved by the stories of people such as the employees of sandwich shop chain Social Bite, who have been pulled out of homelessness by the opportunity of a job.

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Such is its clout that a survey released last week found 28 per cent of consumers attach a stigma to buying from irresponsible businesses. One in five said they would be put off a romantic partner if he or she frequented such firms.

Government from the highest level down has been throwing its weight behind the movement, particularly as austerity measures have slashed the money available to charities and other third sector organisations that have traditionally focused on issues such as poverty, unemployment or environmental destruction.

Social enterprise is helping to take up the slack. There are an estimated 70,000 such organisations operating across the UK – including about 3,500 in Scotland – and last year they raised an estimated £2.9 billion for a range of worthy causes.

Having gained traction on so many fronts, what are the chances that social enterprise gets hijacked by mainstream business?

Pretty high, to be honest. With so much prestige, the phrase itself is a public relations shortcut to a host of qualities that any pragmatic organisation wants to be associated with. Social enterprises are also getting fast-tracked into the delivery of public services, which is a growing area of opportunity for private firms as well.

Consider how quickly corporate social responsibility (CSR) went from trendy to trite. Practically every firm of any magnitude jumped on that bandwagon, but for far too many it was the next-to-last item in a list of boxes to be ticked off without any meaningful thought.

To a large extent, CSR is a hackneyed concept. With abundant temptation to use the social enterprise badge as a unique selling point, this movement risks going the same way. «