Geof Cox's Blog

Where does social enterprise fit in postcapitalism?

Thoughts on reading Postcapitalism by Paul Mason, Allen Lane, 2015.

One of the biggest divisions in the social enterprise world – although it's rarely spoken of – is that between those who see social enterprise as mitigating the worst 'market failures' of capitalism, and those who see it as a bridgehead to a better world.  It is this division that drives, for example, the 'definitions' debate – and it's the reason why that debate tends to surface at every conference, despite the participants' avowed boredom with it: official definitions, marks, etc, only make sense if you see social enterprise as a narrow and distinct 'sector' – in which case they make a lot of sense - but if you see social enterprise as part of a broad movement towards the way ALL business should be done, any narrow definition is worse than useless.

Can social enterprise save public services?

The forthcoming conference on this theme led me to post the question 'Can social enterprise save public services?' on social media, which elicited one immediate response of 'NO!'NESEP Brochure

This reminded me of a public service transformation I worked on exactly 20 years ago this summer.

In January 1995, Newcastle Council made a £240,000 cut (84%) in its instrumental music teaching service.  The Musician's Union sent me in to help the teachers facing redundancy to save the service.  We quite explicitly wanted to blend a public service ethos with the dynamism and flexibility of a business.  Together, we set up the North East Music Co-op (NEMCO) - which in its first year grew from the initial 18 teachers to 33, and approximately doubled the number of pupils taught.

Greece, France - making enterprise more social...

I was particularly struck by a thought in Paul Mason's latest report from Greece – that the deal with its 'creditors'

forces Greece to repeal bans on Sunday trading, repeal laws that ensure you can get fresh bread on every street corner, and open up the system of family pharmacies, whose owners give informal credit and advice, to takeover by global corporations

What struck me particularly was that these words could be applied almost as accurately to France, where I have lived for the last 3 years.  Nearly everything here closes on Sundays – and, this being France, for 2 hours every lunchtime too; every village has its artisan boulangerie, and its pharmacie.

French pharmacists are in fact an integral part of the national health system and lifestyle – not only do they always take the time to advise you on health problems, you can also do things like collect wild mushrooms and take them to the local pharmacist, who will tell you which to eat and which to throw away.

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.

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