In the current political and economic climate, has social enterprise lost the plot?
Many a time during the course of my work have I been pressured to take a stand and produce a conclusive, unqualified definition of the term “social enterprise”. Certainly, there is merit in articulating concepts and establishing a common meaning. From a practical perspective, funding programmes for social enterprise development and support rely on clear terms. Without an established nomenclature, it becomes difficult to speak of a social enterprise sector or to capture meaningful data on social enterprise activity.
However, I believe that deliberating about a universal definition of social enterprise becomes a distraction. In my experience when we begin with the question “What is a social enterprise?”, what transpires is an exercise in oversimplification that lacks contextualisation to reflect the diversity of activity and which feeds into dominant narratives of capitalism. More significantly, it becomes all about the enterprise or what might be referred to as the ‘what’ of social enterprise. Would we rather recognise the thing or be able to do it? The risk is losing sight of what I believe, is more critical – the practice of social enterprise, something which can be captured by the term “social venturing”.
From ‘what’ to ‘how’
Practice implies action. But how do we put an idea into action – ay, there’s the rub! The ideas here are entrepreneurial but anchored by action for social change. Social venturing is not just the commercialisation of an idea or exploitation of an entrepreneurial opportunity. It is about actualising the values behind those ideas that are then brought to life. Thinking about social venturing as values-based practice therefore raises interesting questions:
• How do values translate into organising for social change? How do they shape or guide the running of a social enterprise?
• How does motivation align with values when social venturing? Is it possible to reconcile values for social change with the profit motive?
• What happens when social venturing driven by values conflicts with prevailing cultural, economic or political conditions? How much value alignment with key stakeholders is needed to overcome resistance to change?
These last two questions are fundamental to social venturing. Social change does not occur without some degree of pushing against the norm (or norms) in a particular context. There are power struggles involved that are qualitatively different from any competitive opposition faced when, for example, introducing a new product into a marketplace. This leads me to a point which is often missed in favour of a focus on balancing mission and money: that social venturing occurs within systems featuring an imbalance of power.
From a social enterprise to an ecosystem
Another problem with focusing on the enterprise is that it tends to isolate activity for social change. It neglects approaches that are collective in favour of more conventional business forms. The former are seen as less effective (often functioning based on consensus-building which takes time) and, significantly, less profitable. This does a disservice to the significant impact of many co-operatives, community enterprises, and other group ways of organising. Does this not seem counter to social venturing?
A criticism that is often raised against social enterprises is that they are not making a real difference. Rather the argument is made that they deliver band-aid solutions which produce some relief, but which fail to address root causes. That puts a lot of responsibility for social change on a social enterprise! An assumption is made that for a social enterprise to be successful, it must go to scale. This position is a prejudiced one, weighted towards the dominant narrative of growth, that discredits important work being done at the grassroots level. It discounts the significance of efforts that result in relatively small, but deep impact, often related to an individual, a defined community or a locality. Must lives and communities be treated the same way as economies of scale?
Is the future social venturing
In my opinion, such criticism lacks an understanding of how organising for social change actually happens. We need to counter those arguments which miss the bigger picture. Social venturing is about collective contributions towards a shared goal. What do those contributions look like? They can be big or small. Sometimes they are partnerships and collaborations, possibly networked across sectors. Sometimes they are independent efforts in parallel. What matters is that they are pointing in the same direction, a synergistic if not consciously coordinated ecosystem of diverse actions which together win over hearts and minds, create movements, gather the momentum needed to overcome the inertia of entrenched systems. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its highly recognisable 17 Sustainable Development Goals, is a fitting example, galvanising efforts around an urgent call for action.
Social venturing recognises that it’s all hands on deck and implies a shared responsibility and common purpose. It involves activity, social organising activity that is complementary – policy development, advocacy work, social movements and, yes, social enterprises – all rowing in the same direction of change. The ‘how’ that is social venturing must seek to engage, to nurture, and to empower more activity that goes beyond the limitations of social enterprise definitions.
This blog is the first in a series exploring the concept of “social venturing”. In contrast to other social entrepreneurship terminology, “social venturing” focuses on practice and the ‘doing’ aspect of organising for social change. In subsequent blogs Nicole Helwig, Programme Director, Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation elaborates on the introduction above to discuss social venturing and related concepts.
Nicole Helwig worked extensively with social enterprises and social entrepreneurs as founding manager of the Centre for Social Enterprise at Memorial University of Newfoundland (2016-2021) where she also acted as programme co-ordinator for Memorial’s MBA in social enterprise and entrepreneurship. Prior to joining Cambridge Social Ventures, Nicole was an Honorary Practice Fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation, engaging with students in the MSt in Social Innovation.