The focus on a few kinds of social enterprise is blinding us to a bigger picture


I was recently invited to contribute a number of 'guest blogs' by The Guardian - this is the text of my first...

I was at a 'woman entrepreneur of the year' awards do the other night as a guest of the North East Social Enterprise Partnership. NESEP had sponsored the woman social entrepreneur category. Half-way through the presentations of the businesses short-listed for the other awards, the NESEP Chief Executive turned to me and said “It's amazing how many of these are really social enterprises.” It was true: many of these leading women entrepreneurs were talking about the social problems they had set out to address through their business, or the artistic quest that really motivated them, or the ethical values they placed at the heart of their work. In fact, although the contenders for the social entrepreneur award were all doing great things, it was quite hard sometimes to see the difference.

It seems to me there are quite a few such straws in the wind around social enterprise nowadays.

Such as Jonathan Jenkins' plea here in the Guardian Social Enterprise Network 'not to let the purists hold us back'.

Then there's Dr Rebecca Harding's research on the numbers of social enterprises and new social entrepreneurs. Her figures – that there are over 230,000 'hidden social enterprises' in the UK, and that over a third of all new entrepreneurs are social entrepreneurs – were certainly reflected in the Newcastle women entrepreneurs event.

Could it be that our focus on a few kinds of social enterprise - those that happen to fit an official definition, or can be used to forward a government agenda - is blinding us to a much bigger picture?

I've been reading some other academic research lately too: the Third Sector Research Centre papers on measuring the scale of UK social enterprise (September 2010) and on the construction of the 'social enterprise' concept (forthcoming). These have I hope finally exploded the myth that there are only 62,000 social enterprises in the UK. Nobody knows how many there really are because, as these papers demonstrate, surveys have tended to be shaped around competing definitions of 'social enterprise', so the numbers they come up with are, in fact, politically constructed. My own view, looking at the analysis, is that there are probably at least a third of a million people and organisations out there using business models and methods to achieve their social mission.

Why are these figures so contradictory?  In fact most of the difference is accounted for by whether you include individual social entrepreneurs and purely voluntary organisations, or whether you only count larger firms with employees.  But isn't the latter view complicit with outdated macho ideas about 'competitive firms' and 'economic growth'? We are now in a 'post-industrial' world; the organisation of production and consumption is being reshaped by the growing importance of knowledge-based and creative industries, by their exponentially increasing complexity, by overwhelming concern for the environment, by the comprehensive networking of the internet and instantaneous communications. Yochai Benkler has shown that in this new business environment it is precisely the co-operatively networked individual and voluntary economy of 'peer production' that will win out over traditional firms. Moreover, we should positively embrace this change – not only because the spontaneous co-operation of hackers around the world is the best way we have to resist the global financial industry's undemocratic attempts to strangle the likes of Wikileaks - to give just one current example - but because the networked home worker, not driving into the energy-hungry office every day, can be much more environment-friendly - and they can more easily take some time to shop locally, cook some slow food, spend some time with the kids, get involved in their local community, focus on well-being instead of growth.

And this brings us to another straw-in-the-wind. Not exactly 'Big Society' – but perhaps not too far from it.

I've recently read Paul Kingsnorth's books – one on the anti-globalisation movement and one on 'Real England'. Kingsnorth is a campaigner against the BIG BLAND BRANDS world of globalised business, the monocultural high street and remote call-centre. He sees these damaging the environment and eroding real communities here just as surely as they destroy traditional societies in other parts of the world. But he also describes not just resistance, but positive alternatives. Many of these, everyone would agree, are social enterprise - community owned shops and pubs are among Kingsnorth's examples - but he does not acknowledge any difference between these 'social enterprises' and, say, a passionate farmer determined to preserve old English apple varieties full in the face of commercial pressures.

And that's the point: there isn't a difference. The values-driven women entrepreneurs in Newcastle, the hidden thousands of young and young-at-heart social entrepreneurs revealed in Rebecca Harding's studies, the open source or 'peer production' communities admired by Benkler, and all those Kingsnorth finds fighting the 'battle against the bland' – these are a long way from official definitions and government expectations - but in my view they represent a much bigger and better future for social enterprise. If we can only reach out and welcome them in - stop hanging quite so hard on to the fringes-of-the-public-sector - get our heads out of our oh-so-carefully defined and distinguished 'sector'.

We're all on the same side of a rather bigger divide than that between social enterprise and maybe-not-exactly-social-enterprise: the divide between the multinational corporate world of business models based on greed and exploitation, and the much better way of organising human affairs that I think we may just be onto. All of us.