To Build Social Enterprise, We're Going to Have to Learn How to Break It Down

Over-zealous capitalism is seen as having created much of our current predicament; philanthropic/charitable approaches are often perceived to be sticking plasters rather than cures, but social enterprise holds out the promise of changing the system and sustainably creating a better society.
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By: Tom Rippin


At On Purpose, we find that more and more people are inspired by social enterprise. We work with high-caliber professionals usually in their late 20s and early 30s who want to make a career change into the social enterprise space.

Many of them describe a sense of having been steaming down a set of railway tracks, calling at a well-respected university followed by a competitive graduate training programme. A few years later they realise that they never actually considered what the destination looks like, whether they are enjoying the scenery flying past or fit in with their fellow passengers. They have been en route to fulfilling expectations rather than a purpose.

The majority of early-career professionals we come across in the private sector no longer see shareholder value as a legitimate end in itself and want to find more meaningful work. We also work with many professionals from charitable backgrounds who want to complement their social sector experience with a commercial "tool kit." For both sets of people social enterprise is an attractive field to get involved in.

Social enterprise attracts so much interest, because it holds out the promise of systemic change. Over-zealous capitalism is seen as having created much of our current predicament; philanthropic/charitable approaches are often perceived to be sticking plasters rather than cures, but social enterprise holds out the promise of changing the system and sustainably creating a better society.

If social enterprise is to fullfil the promise it holds out, then it needs to grow quickly in the coming years -- currently, its sheer economic impact is still very small. Growth, however, need not only mean the scaling of individual organisations, it can also be the increasing influence of the social enterprise idea or the replication of proven models in different locations or industries. It is the growth of the social and environmental value that is created that counts.

As it grows, I also believe that our language for how we describe and evaluate social enterprises must become a lot more sophisticated. As a movement we currently do a poor job of communicating about ourselves on two levels: First, most of the general public doesn't know about social enterprise and many who are aware of it find it a (admittedly exciting but) nebulous or even confusing concept. Second, even within the social enterprise movement the language we use to describe ourselves is incredibly blunt.

It reminds me of the early days of the CSR movement when everyone was trying to build an all-encompassing tent into which we could welcome all organisations and issues. With time, more distinct industry or sector-level CSR initiatives developed, such as the Ethical Trade Initiative or the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative; and this is when real progress could be made. Not only did breaking down the movement in this way allow businesses that face common issues to make joint progress, it also helped these businesses communicate much more specifically and authentically with their customers and consumers about what they were doing.

In the social enterprise movement this kind of categorisation is relatively unsophisticated, although it is well-established in a few places: Social Firms, for example, are a subset of social enterprises that employ people who face barriers to employment (e.g., the long-term unemployed or people with learning or physical disabilities). Whilst Social Firms operate in very different industries, they face many common operational and communication challenges and addressing these jointly make them more successful.

Another, very different emerging category is B-Corps, a concept currently being imported from the United States. A B-Corp is a for-profit business that includes social and/or environmental outcomes in its mission and meets rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Again, standardising approaches in how this is done can be very valuable.

The future of social enterprise is difficult to foresee. Hopefully, one day, it will be so much part of how we run our economy that we will no longer think of it as a distinct movement. To achieve this, we need to become more sophisticated in how we describe, categorise and evaluate social enterprises. And along the way, we need to measure our progress of our movement in the same way that any individual social enterprise is held to account, through the social, environmental and economic benefit we help create.

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About Tom Rippin:
Tom is the CEO of On Purpose, the leadership programme that is helping to develop the next generation of social enterprise leaders. It combines full time work experience for one year with an intensive programme of group training and one-to-one mentoring and coaching. It currently works with high-potential professionals with, on average, 5-7 years' work experience for whom it kick-starts their social enterprise careers. It places these professionals in a wide range of organisations who are using commercial approaches for social or environmental good and who are given the opportunity to work with the programme participants at a low cost. On Purpose has been operating in London since January 2010 and in Paris since February 2015. It is itself also a social enterprise.