Re-capturing the civic heart of social enterprise

Commercialisation is flooding the social economy. Here’s how to reverse the tide.

Nelarine Cornelius
8 June 2015

A training session at Trescom, a social enterprise in Bradford. Credit: All rights reserved.

It’s 2014, and I’m sitting in the café of the new and iconic Birmingham City library in the English Midlands, chewing the fat over cups of tea and coffee with Jane (not her real name). She’s the outgoing chief executive of a social enterprise that delivers community health and care provision to the most deprived parts of the city.

As a social enterprise supporter with 20 years of experience in the field as an academic and a practitioner, I wanted to pick Jane’s brains about the latest ideas from her perspective at the ‘sharp end’ of the debate. “You know the sort of thing,” I said, “scaling, social innovation, social investing.” Jane rolled her eyes and sighed. Then she reeled off a long list of gripes:

  • * the hardening of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ view of what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ social enterprise
  • * the potential for the mantra of scaling-up to lead to loss of local know-how and community voice
  • * the sacrifice of opportunities for real social innovation on the altar of the low ground of volume delivery with no eye on quality
  • * slick marketing and expensive networking regimes that substitute for genuine commitment; and
  • * an emerging Trojan horse—commercialising social provision without a genuine civic heart.

Jane reminded me about Mary who she’d worked with in Birmingham, a heavily pregnant mother living rough in a battered car who to all intents and purposes was invisible to local government. With the support of community-based health support workers trained by Jane’s organization (most of whom had previously been on the margins themselves), Mary was able to navigate the bureaucracy that supplied her with the housing, medical attention, regular conversations, encouragement and care that she required.

“Of course she needed help from social services and her doctor,” Jane said, “but what she also needed was a smile, a hug, someone to listen to her troubles and cheer her on when things got better—all small steps that turned her life around.”

This should be what social enterprise is all about, Jane argued, not more rhetoric about the next new development. “Save me from more calls for innovation,” she told me, “think about Mary. We can’t even get the basics right. Slick patter from the big boys with no empathy, no soul. It’s money first and last under the flag of convenience of a good cause. Good social enterprises are good citizens.”

But in the brave new world where small groups of powerful people set the rules for ‘real’ social enterprises and concentrate resources in their direction, what happens to the civic heart of the social economy? Is social enterprise losing its transformative potential?

Rick Cohen’s thoughtful piece on creeping neo-corporatism is one of many that question the wisdom of current trends in the social enterprise movement. But I would go further: by narrowing our understanding of social enterprise and pushing the field further in the direction of commercialisation, we are eroding the depth and breadth of improvements that can be made in people’s lives. The all important diversity of organisational types is being hollowed out and standardised, with potentially fatal consequences. So what to do?

In my home city of Bradford, West Yorkshire, there’s a good range of social enterprises. Examples include:

Trescom, a community regeneration and training group that works with the long-term unemployed, branching out into mentoring young South Asian men at zero cost.

Vicars, which generates funds through a conventional café to support a meeting centre for the local community. It has now morphed into a restaurant called Saltaire Canteen, which uses surplus food discarded by supermarkets to offer meals on a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ basis.

And Carlisle Business Centre, which addresses economic development and social cohesion in Manningham (a historically deprived area of the city) through a mix of commercial and social activities, and community support.

Along with groups like Jane’s, the work of these organizations offers some clues on how to push back the rising tide of corporatism.

One comment of hers really struck a chord with me: “the joy of measurement.” This wasn’t what I had expected. Changes in UK government regulations under the Social Value Act of 2012 require decisions over public sector procurement to consider measurable outcomes in the form of collective social benefits to communities. That’s important, but there’s a risk that measurement, or more precisely a narrow range of measures, can become the primary indicator of what social enterprises should do. This is especially problematic if such measures only cover things that can be easily achieved in the short timeframes of contracts, rather than the longer timeframes that are needed to create deep and sustainable change.

The key is to make sure that indicators of those kinds of transformative changes are incorporated in the decision-making process over funding. Examples might include measuring the degree of ‘community sourcing’ in contractor supply chains in order to strengthen local social and economic regeneration; and working with ‘priority prolific offenders’ in training and employment programmes for ex-prisoners.

“Of course it’s a game,” Jane told me, “but it’s a game that I know how to play. We can always deliver more than they ask for. And a lot of what matters to our clients is the stuff that is difficult to measure if you can measure it at all.”

Secondly, it’s vital to ensure the primacy of the ‘social’ even though the ‘enterprise’ has to be financially sustainable in order to continue its activities, and hopefully to expand them over time. Social enterprises are born out of passion, rage and anger at social injustices and the needs they create. But it’s easy for those emotions to drain away as the pressure to meet financial goals intensifies, and calls to scale-up become even louder. Against that background, it’s vital to insist that social goals come first.

Take the rightly lauded example of Arunachalam Muruganantham’s efforts to bring affordable sanitary towels to women in India. Although menstruation is a taboo subject in many societies, his passion for women’s wellbeing—even in the face of opposition from family members and entrenched cultural norms—led him to persevere with low-cost, low-tech solutions to sanitary towel production using local labour and cheap materials. As in this case, the passion that inspires a social entrepreneur has to be embedded in its DNA at all times, and made real through its mission, vision, purpose, culture, salary structure, funding arrangements and service choices.

It’s far too early to start excluding certain groups from an emerging ‘club’ of approved organisations that are strongly aligned to commercial norms, but that often have threadbare civic credentials and limited, sustained social outcomes.

In his seminal work, Inequality Re-examined, the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen argues that measuring different configurations of inequality is important—moving beyond established measures that exclude important aspects of the experience of inequality “on the pragmatic ‘low ground’ of the need for simplification…the net result of this can also be to ignore centrally important features of the demands of equality.”

These are wise words and well worth heeding against the rising chorus of voices that urge social enterprises to scale-up and measure their efforts narrowly, often clothed in the rhetoric of commercialisation and marketisation. This siren song may be seductive, and perhaps even financially attractive to those involved. But it’s leading the field away from activities that can create the rich and sustainable social value that transforms people’s lives.

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