It’s fair to say that my blogs have depleted since this time last year when I was a USE Summer Intern, so with the summer coming back around and our intern blogging force dropping from eight to two, I thought it was about time I pulled out my typing fingers. The issue is my returning blog had to be fairly epic, so here goes, a dissection of what social enterprise is to me.
This blog started as a case study but soon developed into a much broader blog, and then somehow into a series of blogs, that I’ve aptly named the Social Innovation Officer Series…ooooh…I can sense your excitement already.
After a summer of interning at USE I was lucky enough to join the full time staff. I joined an amazing dynamic team, took on the responsibility of delivering USSIP, got my own business cards, swanky name badge, and even a budget.
For the last ten months I have been engaging students campus wide in social enterprise. Supporting students to turn their passions for social change into a reality. But the top questions I get asked remain the same, what is social enterprise? Am I a social entrepreneur? Which way to the bathroom? (The last one because the USE toilets seem to mystify many a person despite the signs).
So, what is social enterprise?
The Government defines social enterprise as:
“A business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profits for shareholders and owners”.
Mean much to you?
It breaks down, according to Social Enterprise UK, as social enterprises should:
- Have a clear social and/or environmental mission set out in their governing documents
- Generate the majority of their income through trade
- Reinvest the majority of their profits
- Be autonomous of state
- Be majority controlled in the interests of the social mission
- Be accountable and transparent
This can be a fairly restrictive definition and seems to be geared up for setting parameters to deliver tax breaks. For me, the definition is too stringent, so I’ll let you into a little secret, I don’t normally ask my students what their reinvestment policies, corporate governance model and transparency procedures are when I first meet them. Mainly, because I don’t want to scare them off but also because most of the time they won’t know, which is fine.
My understanding of social enterprise really stemmed from SIFE, which started with The Intern, and led to other inspiring projects, in particular Homemade, and gave me a platform to run my own social enterprise project (again a subject worthy of another blog, part of the Social Innovation Officer series). All small scale projects aiming to alleviate real social problems such as graduate unemployment, homelessness and isolation from society. I didn’t realise back then that they were social enterprises, I just thought they were volunteering projects that made money so they could keep running. I didn’t know that many charity projects didn’t have revenue streams and relied solely on grants, which in my head seems fairly illogical.
On reflection the real reason that I was drawn to social enterprise wasn’t the concept, it was the people. Students, graduates, post grads, all from different departments, backgrounds, nationalities, all passionate about making a difference. They had seen a problem, whether that be social or environmental, decided to stop complaining about it, and instead just do something about it. They were logical enough to realise that sustainability is essential to making a lasting difference and opportunistic enough to find themselves in a Social Innovation Lab, or on our Social Innovation Accelerator or in our Social Innovation Business Planning Category.
I continue to be inspired by each and every person that comes through our doors and I am always keen to hear new ideas, see new problems and foster the development of genuine social innovations. But most of all, I am often overly excited to meet the people behind those ideas, hear their story and try and help them along their own world changing path.
I guess what I’m trying to say with this blog is, the definition for social enterprise doesn’t matter. It will come eventually when an idea begins to take life and the once scary terminology will become words that seem quintessentially, the only way to operate. If you have an idea that could change the world, in a small or big way, then don’t be put of by feeling like you’re not sure what it is defined as.