Social Enterprise is a verb

This November I attended the first Social Enterprise Wales conference in Swansea, organized by the Wales Cooperative Centre. The first day of the conference coincided neatly with announcements from the Bank of England that the UK economy is experiencing a period of  Zen-like stillness. Not everyone thinks this is good. And needless-to-say, it appears that early sightings of  “fresh green shoots of growth” a few months back were but a mirage. Whilst the prospect of exciting corporate jobs for all of our young people has become but tumbleweed to chase across the desert, blown by the wind of fate.

However, all is not lost. Bare soil does not necessarily make a desert. Take Wales. Take Social Enterprise. What is this thing?

Sometimes, we misunderstand words. And sometimes some other people deliberately manipulate the meaning of words, as if they actually want us to misunderstand them. It happens.  So, if you think you don’t like social enterprise, or its just a phrase to put in your funding application, then perhaps it’s time to put aside your preconceptions and get excited about the real thing.

Liam Black, a keynote speaker at the conference, is an award-winning social entrepreneur in the UK and has founded and led several leading social businesses.  From 1997 to 2004, he was CEO at Liverpool’s FRC Group, one of the UK’s pioneering social businesses, selling goods such as pre-loved furniture and providing livelihoods for hundreds of formerly unemployed people. With Jamie Oliver he grew “Fifteen” into a global brand with businesses in Europe and Australia. His presentation at the conference is disarming … describing himself thirty years ago as a guy whose “ambition was to travel around the world and find out interesting shit”

He speaks openly in favour of profit. We live in a capitalist society and we have to square with that. One option is to be funded> Another to be a volunteer (and starve?)> The third is to decide to put a value upon your work in the social/environmental sector.

By the end of Black’s speech, I have become a social entrepreneur. Finally able to see beyond the rise and fall and seasick sway of the FTSE, and the struggle for funding and the beckoning ghost of the dole queue; toward the beginnings of a new, and kinder, economic purpose.

According to Black and indeed many of the excellent speakers … David Le Page, Lis Burnett, Jerr Boschee, Brian Popsys, Duncan Goose, Edwina Hart to name a few … social enterprise can change the world by changing the way we do business. And that’s because, as Black puts it,

“Social enterprise is a verb (a doing word) … it shouldn’t have been made a noun.”

The second day of the conference, brings social entrepreneur Duncan Goose, on his motorbike, in the fog, all the way from London.  His entrepreneurial story is about trading water for water.  But it begins with him travelling around the world on a motorbike … and encountering, amongst other things, trouble in Afghanistan and the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch. You cant see the world and how people live, without being changed by that.

Back home in the UK, Goose learned that there were 1 billion people in the world without access to clean water, and decided that if he could help clear a house of mud with with a group of people and some roof tiles for tools, he could damn well do something about water. And so begins the tale of “One” … a hugely successful water and food trading scheme that puts 100% profit back to helping people in poverty.

It’s important that we remember the real resource we have is us. We just need the right environment of “enablement” to flourish again. Social enterprise is a kinder way to do business. It takes us right back to our roots … the place, the people and above all it’s not just a word you use to secure funding. S ometimes you have to say the “wrong” thing, because it’s right. Like Profit can be Good. This is the world of the social entrepreneurs … taking the challenges, cutting to the chase, making solutions happen, despite everything. I came away refreshed, despite the arid landscape of the UK economy, and ready to turn social enterprise back into a doing word.

It’s all about RE-SHAPING THE CULTURE OF BUSINESS by putting a financial value upon our work. Because to create sustainable and viable models for social and environmental change, for young people, for humanity, for the natural world and for the future, is really the most valuable thing we can do. And to echo the hopes of another speaker, Jerr Boschee, I don’t think we will quit until the miracle happens.

November 2011


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