New Guardian Newspaper Column From Social Enterprise Scotland

Posted: 07 August 2012, in Press Release

“Charities can ill afford to shun social enterprise”. The full article is here and below. 


Charities can ill afford to shun social enterprise

Duncan Thorp argues that old ideology shouldn’t hold back Scotland’s enterprising spirit

Ever since the early days of the Scottish co-operatives, social enterprise has existed in Scotland – and today it is thriving. From the many registered companies that exist primarily for a social or environmental purpose, to housing associations, credit unions, social firms, co-operatives and development trusts, the sector is diverse. But despite this, we still have some way to go in terms of raising the profile of the various community enterprise business models and their social and economic impacts in Scotland.

Part of our challenge in raising the profile of social enterprise is that there are still many examples of ignorance about social enterprise in some parts of the ‘traditional’ charity sector. Some opinions sound more like the now defunct News of The World than serious commentary. This includes the myth that social enterprise is simply a mindset – when it’s also about starkly different models of delivery and ways of sustainably achieving social objectives.

There’s no question that the concept and practice of “charity” is a good thing – but social enterprises do not subscribe to the old-fashioned soundbite ‘not-for-profit’. We love profit, we are ‘more-than-profit’. Without profit we can’t change society – and we’re not talking simply about ethical businesses here. They can contribute a great deal, but only businesses that have a social purpose as their reason for existing – and lock and invest all money into that purpose – are social enterprises.

The issue also lies with some charities themselves, those that are not currently enterprising – though of course many are. There seems to be a complacency and passivity about seizing social enterprise, of people “maybe thinking about trying some of that social enterprise”. This is a dangerous way of thinking. Our society is not going through an economic blip, when things will go ‘back to normal’ in ten years, when we can start relying on state hand-outs again. Society has fundamentally changed. It’s better not to deny it and attempt to operate outside of capitalism – but instead to exploit and change the market to do good business – the core of what social enterprise is and does.

The good news is in the actions of increasing numbers of Scottish charities who have recently enrolled as full members of Social Enterprise Scotland. This includes those that have in the past followed the old models of delivery – but now have a vision for a new future. It’s a clear demonstration of their intelligence and understanding of this new reality. In the current economic climate these actions will help release the enterprising potential of their highly skilled workforces.

Of course it’s not desirable or necessary for every charity to ‘convert’ to a social enterprise model. All charities, large and small, should have a favourable environment, to fundraise in new and innovative ways and to continue to change lives. Their many achievements must be celebrated.

What doesn’t help is to try and impose a bogus existential crisis on social enterprise and deny Scotland’s forward-thinking charities and social enterprises the positive opportunities to do good business. A tip – those who need to understand the sector better might want to sign up to the new MSc in social enterprise at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Yesterday’s ideology shouldn’t be allowed to stifle the natural entrepreneurial spirit of our people – in the increasing number of cases where that spirit has powerful social and environmental aims. We must all play a full part in the huge opportunities of public service reform, new forms of social investment and new delivery mechanisms. Conservatism is no longer an option.

The social enterprise community has equality, unity and social inclusion at its core and we look forward to seeing more charities became social enterprises. Perhaps there will even come a time when there are no barriers between any sector, including public and private, simply a diverse and free-thinking mix of social enterprise models, benefiting us all.

Social enterprise is the future for Scotland’s third sector. We urge the traditional charity sector not to be left behind – and come and join us on this exciting journey.