Social enterprise will change everything

Matt Thomas on why we'll buy, sell and trade differently - and why it's nothing to do with charity

Social enterprise is the future. It’s where the next generation of great UK businesses and entrepreneurs will come from.

Let me be even clearer: social enterprises will shape the way we buy, sell, do business; most probably influence how we socialise; how we travel and where socialise. Already the 55,000 UK social enterprises turnover £27bn and employ 500,000, but this is just the beginning.

Up until now, interest in social enterprise has been driven by increased consumer demand for ethical buying choices and transparency to see how products are sourced – but the reason social enterprises are now attracting serious business attention and will start to influence every sector is because, well, they’re now being run as serious businesses.

Social enterprises aren’t charities. They’re not asking people for donations. They’re not hippy head-in-the-clouds, tree-hugging, do-gooder, call it what you will, projects. They’re pure businesses, run by serious entrepreneurs, offering consumers and clients a different, better, fairer, more ethical way to consume but without any concession to quality.

Any serious social entrepreneur will drive their enterprise to be as profitable as the next commercial business. They’ll be cash focused, have a solid business model and if they can, they’ll always charge £9.99 instead of £9.98.

The misconceptions about ‘social’ enterprises and entrepreneurs may in the past have been fair. Indeed, several luminaries now lauded as pioneers of social enterprise recall how they initially recoiled at such labels – ‘I’m running a business not a charity’ was the usual objection.

However, times are changing and like all serious change, business and enterprise is driving it. Society is demanding choice and power in how it consumes and business has responded. Social enterprise is now applied to business not the other way around.

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Take Sophi Tranchell’s Divine Chocolate, the first part-farmer owned co-operative business to make a real impact on European and US markets. The Ghanian Kuapa Kokoo co-operative holds a 45% stake in Divine directly benefiting from the company’s profits. The company also invests a percentage of turnover into local support and educational programmes while strictly adhering to Fairtrade practices. Most importantly though, Divine is a growing business; it’s making real progress with the supermarkets and is generating a profit; not just for Kuapa Kokoo but for its founders – and there are certainly plenty of standard food companies that aren’t.

The model’s applicable to businesses of all sizes, from all countries and for all causes, though – and offers a real USP to revolutionise any sector. What large companies could be doing with their CSR strategies is well covered, but if you’re starting a café in your local town, why not make it a community café committing a percentage of profits to support local projects; you’ll even find people are more likely to pay a bit extra for their coffee if they can see a) it’s sourced ethically b) the money goes back into improving their environment.

How long before we see social enterprise pubs, restaurants, tv channels, transport – whether they be donating profits, sourcing ethically, sharing revenues with suppliers or directly impacting on improving local communities or saving the environment?

It’s taken a while for business to get its head around social enterprise, but now it has, I think we’re in store to see some wonderful innovations. The consumer is hungry for fairness, transparency and the ability to contribute to a more ethical society. But, of course, most of us are also inherently selfish, and dare I say it, lazy. That’s why there can be no compromise on service, product or quality – but that’s where business thinking comes into it.

There were too many great businesses on show at Social Enterprise Day during last week’s Enterprise Week, especially at the conclusion at the wonderful Striding Out exhibition. I was really pleased to see real government commitment for the day with Ed Miliband, John Hutton, Stephen Timms and Phil Hope all playing active roles.

I thought Liam Black, the man behind the Jamie Oliver Fifteen Foundation, summed it up best, though: “It used to be that there were two separate paths: working for a charity, and setting up your own business, but the split between doing well and doing good no longer exists.”

Here are just a few social enterprises that caught my attention to check out:

Blue Ventures – an award-winning, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to marine conservation, education and sustainable development in tropical coastal communities.

Tam and Rob – Great, ethical clothing, and the similarly principled Amana.

Goodwin Develoment Trust – Hull-based community organisation, supplying cafes, children’s centres and among other projects, transport:

Cafedirect – Fair Trade coffee company –

Women Like Us – supports women with children find work –

The brilliant LIVE Magazine supported by Sam Conniff founder of socially concious youth marketing company Livity.

Kressie Wesling’s three businesses, and

Sam, Kressie, Divine’s Sophi and Liam – as well as Tim Campbell who’s brilliant Big Ideas Trust is of course more than worthy of mention – are all Social Enterprise Ambassadors. Check out the full list. Also take a look the Social Enterprise CoalitionMake Your Mark and ?WhatIf! websites

There’s tonnes I’ve missed off, please add them below!


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