Geof Cox's Blog

Responsible business, not casino capitalism

As social entrepreneurs, what are we to make of the current UK politicians' spat about whether the various parties are pro- or anti- 'business'?

I've always been an entrepreneur.  While still at school I started a disco with 3 friends – we owned the equipment between us, equal shares – and on going away to university I set up a little business selling pocket calculators (then new and like gold dust).  I recognise in myself nearly all the qualities normally associated with entrepreneurs (good and bad!).  I am, in one party's jargon. 'a wealth creator'.  But in my 20s I discovered social enterprise.  The idea that you can use business models and methods to make everyone's lives richer is to me much more powerful than making yourself rich in merely material things.  And I'm not a-typical.  Let's be clear:

Small is the new big!

I've written before about some of the problems with the idea, uncritically accepted in some parts of the UK social enterprise movement, of social enterprise 'scaling up'.  My gut feeling is that although conventional business forms of growth might be appropriate in some circumstances, by and large we need to look precisely in the other direction: how to keep social enterprise small and locally, or community-based (while at the same time taking advantage of some economies of scale - for example through online 'collaborative communities').

It is refreshing to see conventional business moving decisively towards micro-enterprise too.  "The major business trend of the last few years is the regeneration of the cottage industry economic model."  (Simon Wicks, Enterprise Nation)

Social impact is no longer an option for big brands

According to Javier Rodriguez Merino, Global Marketing Sustainability Director of Coca-Cola,

"Considering social impact is no longer an option for big brands, it's a necessity... We cannot treat branding and social impact as separate anymore."

When I visited Cliff Southcombe's office in Robin Hood's Bay a few weeks ago he answered the phone to one of those 'state of social enterprise' surveys.  When the researcher asked him what his social mission was, he replied,

"The defeat of capitalism!"

But does Coca-Cola's new thinking mean that social enterprise has already won this battle?

What on earth is Social Enterprise UK doing?


The UK social enterprise movement has recently had to suffer the spectacle of a Regional Social Enterprise Partnership having to take Social Enterprise UK to court to get paid for work they had done on a Social Enterprise UK project. In the end, SEUK was forced to pay not only money owed to the Regional Partnership, but the legal costs as well.

But failing to pay what you owe raises not only legal, but also ethical questions.  A couple of years ago I took part in the Senscot AGM in Edinburgh, and was surprised by the passion with which business ethics were discussed in Scotland.  When was the last time you heard an English (or 'UK') social enterprise umbrella body talking about ethics?  And of course there is more at stake here than the ethics of one organisation failing to pay another – or even of a social enterprise body, whose business ethics should be exemplary, failing to pay its debts; this was a national social enterprise representative body failing to pay what should be one of it's own regional partnership organisations.  What on earth was Social Enterprise UK doing?  Has it lost its way entirely?  How did it let what should have been (at worst) a disagreement within a spirit of partnership end up in court?

Asset Based Strategy Matrix

A while back I was involved in some research on asset based community development, and started thinking about a typology of asset-based strategies.  I wondered if the key factors with regard at least to land and building assets might be

  • how the asset-based strategy relates to organisational aims, on the one hand, and on the other
  • the technical characteristics (method and terms) of the asset acquisition.

I started to fit projects I knew about into a matrix on this, colour-coded according to how successful I felt the asset based strategies had been, and what started to emerge was something like this (I have removed the actual project names)...

Asset Based Strategy Matrix

See the pattern? Intuitively it makes some sense that those projects that are either commercially harder or more important (to the mission) will succeed best - so perhaps I'm just proving the obvious. But can it really be true that the lower the cost the more likely the failure?

In the event the research took a different approach - the last thing anyone wanted was to raise unnecessary questions in the minds of grant funders - nevertheless 'easy come easy go' remains an intriguing speculation.

Copyright infringement is NOT theft

It's great to see mainstream economists like Ha-Joon Chang exposing the doubtful utility of big business approaches to intellectual property.

'Patent monopoly creates a lot of problems. It allows the patentee to charge the maximum to consumers. This ... can violate basic human rights if it involves things such as life-saving drugs. Patent monopoly also blocks technological progress... as other people cannot use the patented technologies in developing other technologies.'

Chang also points out that what big business likes to present as the natural state of things is in fact a very recent imposition – in some developed economies in the 1990s -  and never fully accepted in countries like India.  Far from being based firmly in natural justice, these big business approaches to intellectual property are in fact paradoxically associated with free-market ideology (paradoxically, because intellectual property rights are themselves a form of market regulation)

There is now of course broad and growing resistance to these approaches to intellectual property.

Impact2 Social Enterprise Conference

Impact2 at the Hotel de Ville de ParisImpact2 at the Hotel de Ville de Paris

Just back from the Impact2 Social Enterprise Conference in Paris.  Like many big-name conferences it was rather spoilt by the shameless self-promotion of 'speakers' from big banks and the likes of KPMG.  It's so transparently cynical, isn't it? – they pay their sponsorship and get their advertising slot.  There is I suppose a question of who's kidding who: the suits get put up on the platform alongside the predictable politicians and real social entrepreneurs, and think they gain a bit of credibility by association; we think we're taking their money and seeing right through them.

Not So Grim Up North (or Why Regional Social Enterprise Partnerships struggle in the South but thrive in the North)

Why is it that while regional Social Enterprise Partnerships in the South of England are dropping like nine-pins, those in the North seem to be going from strength to strength?

I was at the North East Social Enterprise Conference yesterday where the irrepressible Val Jones, who leads Social Enterprise North West, set out the exciting programme for the coming year across the North of England, including the development of Social Enterprise North - a new body to co-ordinate work across all of Northern England. which will share experience of the big ERDF social enterprise development programmes across the North, and carry forward a number of other progammes, such as Shared Growth – at last the social enterprise movement thinking seriously about replication – and the Northern Social Enterprise Academy – itself a replication learning from pioneering work still further north in Scotland.

I would appeal to the remaining regional Social Enterprise Partnerships in the South of England – some of which I know are struggling – to visit Social Enterprise North East, North West, or Yorkshire & Humber to help work out the secrets of success – and to social enterprise organisations in the regions that have closed down to look at developing new more viable regional bodies, modelled on the good practice in the North.

My own suspicion is that the very factors which favoured the South a few years ago – especially closeness to government – made it more difficult for them to weather the change in government and funding environment.  As Val said (I'm paraphrasing): 'It's tough, but so are we.'

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