Guardian Social Enterprise Summit

I've been asked to lead a session on legal structures at this year's Guardian Social Enterprise Summit.

Given the topic, I couldn't help wondering about the event pricing structure:

Private sector organisations £495 + VAT (£581.63 inc)

Government departments and agencies, local authorities £350 + VAT (£411.25 inc)

Voluntary sector, not-for-profit, charities £250 + VAT (£293.75 inc)

How about a quick poll of 'social enterprises': which category would you put yourselves in?  (Honestly now!)

 - or for another view look here!


A social enterprise summit that does not recognise social enterprises in its pricing structure - is that a first?

At next year's Cooperative and Social Enterprise Summer School (Sheffield Business School), we will offer concessions for any organisation from any sector with 5 or fewer paid staff. Given the poverty I've seen in small private sector companies and wealth I've seen in some charities, this seems to be a fairer approach.

Hope the session goes well.

Where does social enterprise fit....

Increasingly as social enterprise is being heralded as the answer to the world, economy and everything, we are being stripped of our own identity. When the gvt started to recognise SE as a model, a minister of the DTI was charged with responsibility. So everyone was in agreement that we were businesses. Then the Office for the Third Sector was invented - and with hindsight we should have put our collective feet down right there and then. But we thought we would give it a go. All that happened was that gradually the voluntary sector started using the term third sector and voluntary sector interchangably, and we had to waste our time challenging this creeping tendancy rather than get on with the job of promoting SE. Now with this Civil Society Office, there seems to be an assumption that we need to shoehorn ourselves ungrammatically and inelegantly in to that phrase. I recommend voting with our feet, voices and pens, and claim ourselves to be part of the Independent Business Sector . The private sector and the social enterprise bundle works at least as well as the voluntary sector and the social enterprise bundle!
I would still lobby for the lower price, but make the point that the terminology is conflicting, confusing and self-defeating (for the conference organisers) and they need to get with the programme and stop alienating their customers!
Michele, CEO, Social Enterprise East of England

Where does social enterprise fit.


I heartily agree with some of the sentiments expressed above, but not all of them. The erosion / extension of the meaning of the term social enterprise is due to factors both inside and outside the UK. Yes, social enterprises in the UK in the late 1990s were happy to be regarded as businesses outside the voluntary sector. However, in the US at that time, the term 'social enterprise' was being used in a sense that we would recognise as 'charity' (see an influential paper by Jed Emerson published in 2000 about 'Blended Value'). It is not surprising that over time an increasing number of UK charities/non-profits began to identify with language that was in widespread use in the US.

However, the flip side of this is the argument that I see increasing numbers of consultants (and even academics) making. Social enterprises are not 'businesses' - they are 'social enterprises'. Social enterprises have social enterprise plans, not business plans (because 'business' is a loaded term that implies all sorts of practices in which social enterprises do not engage). Once people have an internalised understanding of socially enterprising modes of operating, it starts to be misleading to talk of them as businesses. They are, I am sure, more than this.

For example, I am now happier talking to students about social enterprise planning, and not business planning. We even have an emergent model (courtesy of Social Enterprise Europe) that enables students to distinguish the two modes of planning. This language fits better - particularly when you set out the characteristics of a 'social economy' in the EU based on community and member shareholding, and distribution of profits in relation to trading activity rather than financial investment.

Next January a new book by myself (at Sheffield Business School) and Mike Bull (from Manchester Met) will extensively discuss the points that you are making above and provide educators with some much needed input into the debate. Hopefully, within a few years the debate will have shifted back towards the territory that is dear to you. The book reflects the feelings we hear expressed by practitioners such as yourselves, so I hope this is a contribution you will welcome.

So, perhaps a better solution to the one you suggest (regarding an 'Independent Business Sector') is to sit tight, defend the ground you are on, and challenge the use of the term 'social enterprise' for ventures that are neither 'social' (in the cooperative sense) or enterprising (in the business sense). This enables social economy organisations to adopt a positive attitude to private, governmental, charitable, cooperative and voluntary organisation that are committed to socialising business practice, while also challenging those that have no interest in either business or the socialisation of entrepreneurship.

Best wishes

Personally I'm in favour of...

Personally I'm in favour of both the private sector / social enterprise bundle and the voluntary sector / social enterprise bundle. Is there a need for a clear dividing line? I'm happy to think of social enterprise as a movement that embraces all really values-driven businesses and trading activity by charities. A few fuzzy edges are fine by me. Indeed, I don't think it is possible to draw a hard line between either values-driven businesses or trading activity by charities and social enterprise - or desirable, because if we think of and present ourselves as a separate 'sector' we'll lose influence, but as a dynamic and open 'movement' we start to change the way everyone works.