The debate about the definition of social enterprise may well seem jaded and old news to those of us within the social enterprise community but it seems that a large proportion of the general public didn’t even realize there had been a debate going on. By Gareth Hart
“So you’re a social enterprise, eh? What does that mean then?” How many times have you been asked that question? How many times have you answered it but still aren’t convinced that they questioner has ‘got it’ or believes it?
The debate about the definition of social enterprise may well seem jaded and old news to those of us within the social enterprise community but it seems that a large proportion of the general public didn’t even realize there had been a debate going on. So the aforementioned question comes up time and time again. If we want to establish new audiences for social enterprise and push the concept into a wider public consciousness it is vitally important to maintain a public dialogue about ‘what is a social enterprise’.
No one really seems to question you in the same way if your business is a charity or Fairtrade or eco-friendly. There is an automatic assumption these are ‘good’ things. People know what these terms mean. They come with a nice badge, logo or number that tells the public they’ve been checked out and do indeed do what they say on the tin. If only there was a similar thing available to social enterprises…
Enter the Social Enterprise Mark. The Mark is the social enterprise equivalent of the Fairtrade logo or the Charity Commission number. The Social Enterprise Mark provides:
*A clear definition of what constitutes a social enterprise
*An instantly recognisable ‘stamp of approval’ to show that your business has been independently assessed and meets criteria to justifiably call itself a social enterprise
*A national community of like-minded ethical businesses for social enterprises to engage with
*A range of other benefits around marketing and support.
There is growing interest in the Social Enterprise Mark, particularly among large organisations like universities.Plymouth University is the first social enterprise university and has held the Mark since 2012. Another university is set to join. Many of the large health spin-outs also hold the Mark. These organizations provide services to huge numbers of people and have strong roles in public life in their respective towns, cities and areas. I would like to see more large healthcare providers really engage with the public around understanding that they are receiving great services from a local social enterprise. The Mark could help them do this.
As the social enterprise sector, and public awareness of it, continues to grow, so I hope that the Social Enterprise Mark will continue to flow into public consciousness and eventually become as recognizable as the Fairtrade logo. The Mark will evolve, I am sure, and we need an ongoing dialogue about what it means to be a social enterprise both within and outside the sector.
With the introduction of the Social Value Act in 2013 there is a requirement for social value and impact to be given more weight within commissioning of services. Consumers are looking to purchase ethical goods and for businesses to behave better. Surely then, the time is right for the Social Enterprise Mark to become a stamp of social value so that commissioners and customers alike will recognize social enterprises and be able to make more informed choices about the goods and services they buy and use.
I believe that social enterprises are better for the economy and for society. We need to articulate more clear what 'better' looks like of course. Social enterprises create wealth and jobs and also deliver environmental and social value. The Mark can be the guarantee that proves this.