A Right Bloody Shambles?

Cleaning coinsThe social enterprise proposition is founded on an idea that can be captured in one word – sustainability. That long-term economic, social and environmental imperatives can be more effectively achieved if they are aligned in co-operation and mutually reinforcing (or at worst, held in creative tension) rather than pursuing the mutual destruction wreaked through opposition or ignorance. In the simplest terms, businesses won’t profit if the planet burns; we all rely on natural resources to sustain our health and wellbeing; markets don’t work without trust; and capital can help us make more effective use of our time and resources.

So the enemy or antithesis of this model is the enterprise which ignores social relations and which pays no heed to the environmental consequences of its actions. Rootless, blind to the notion of community, indifferent to the spirit of fraternity, that obeys only the law of the land and no more, no moral law and no margin for sentiment. A pure, pure capitalist model with a single profit motive – in fact imperative – which the duty of the Board and the single-minded, yet distant demands of the shareholders ultimately require.

This is a model. An archetype. Yet we know all too well one business which, in such perennial pursuit of profit, failed. Which, through the exchange of personal for impersonal, local for global, trust for tricks of the light, and through the obsession with this one imperative, tripped over and fell. Fell so far and so fast that it threatened to take us with it. We had to catch it on the way down and limp along with it under our arm, weighing us down, while it struggled on, still chasing the same old dream.

So who sponsored this year’s annual social enterprise conference? Who sponsored last year’s? And the year before that? Who sponsored last year’s SE100 awards? Who will sponsor this year’s? Who sponsored the Enterprising Solutions awards 2008? Who wrote the cheque for the Social Enterprise Coalition’s guide to financing social enterprise? Who hosted drinks for the great and the good on Social Enterprise Day 2009? Which single business has most associated itself with the social enterprise movement in the UK? Which business has churned out the most yards of paper telling the world how much it contributes to sustainable enterprise models which help people and the planet?

Sometimes, we can get it so right. The SE100 launch event last year was a triumph for ethical and social enterprise supply chain management with over 90% of the budget spent on social enterprises. Meanwhile, the Social Enterprise Coalition stretch themselves to ensure they live by the principles they promote, for example, when hiring and paying interns fairly and equally. Even the Cabinet Office has started to use social enterprise caterers.

The Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) movement suggests two approaches when thinking about investing your money to make a difference. Either simply don’t deal with those you don’t respect and take your business elsewhere, or ensure that your terms of engagement are as an active shareholder, demanding change and challenging conventional business methods.

So should we walk away from those who don’t match our values and stick to our principles? Or err on the side of pragmatism and work together with those within the structures we are trying to influence? In which case, what should the terms of engagement be? What do we demand? What could we? What should we?

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