Doing Business by Doing Good

January 19th 2015

Last week was a cold and wet week to head to Manchester but I was warmed by the company of social entrepreneurs from across the UK.  We come together as members of E3M,  a national business club of large social businesses with a combined turnover of over £1 billion employing 30,000 staff.  (Yep,  despite the stereotype social does not mean a group of hippies operating from a tree house!) We cover everything from health to housing and finance to leisure. Every January, we meet for two days to kick start our energy and get psyched up for the year ahead.

One of the E3M members, the Phone Co-Op had invited a guest speaker to dinner. Tessa Wernink came from Amsterdam to present Fairphone an impressive technology start up which used crowd funding to develop a phone which is made of conflict free sourced minerals and allows you to open the back of your phone so you can replace each bit and  buy the parts directly from the supplier in order to be able to fix it thereby reducing the horrific environmental waste of obsolete phones.

It’s a beautiful idea and one that should sell and sell.

During her speech she shared her understanding of social enterprise which she had sourced from the Guardian.

‘A social enterprise is a company for which sustainability of income and a social mission are the ultimate objectives and this should be evident in every decision taken.’

It seems such a simple concept but its taking a long time for commissioners and the public to recognise it. Surely it’s the way to go forward?  There is a campaign led by Social Enterprise UK which is called Buy Social which is a badge given to organisations which procure from social enterprises.  We support this in every way including working closely with other social enterprises. For example at LEYF our Brixton nursery is in a GLL gym.  Our Blackheath nursery is in The Conservatoire and our aprons and shoe covers are made by Fashion Enter.  We run the House of Commons nursery which is now a Buy Social nursery by virtue of the fact that both Houses (Commons and Lords) were awarded the Buy Social badge at an event where I was delighted to meet Professor Mohammed Yunus . We are always keen to procure with other social businesses so if you can see a link make it!  Maybe some of our staff, parents and friends will now become interested in Fairphone and so the movement rolls on…

On day two Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP, joined us for an early breakfast. A fervent champion of social enterprise for many years, she came to remind us about the review of the Social Value Bill which permits government and local authorities to consider social enterprises as part of the contracting process. Given that commissioners need to procure contracts that provide tax payer funded services to the public, it’s surprising they needed an Act of Parliament to raise their awareness of the social business sector.  However, if it helps I won’t complain! Hazel was very eloquent on the subject and pushed the House of Commons and Lords to become “ Buy Social” contractors. She also works cross party with Chris White MP who recommend it as a Private Member’s Bill. I am a fan of alliances and cross party working as I am fed up about the way party politics can limit innovation, scupper collective impact and let the public down. Of course what we need is the full engagement of the Treasury and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to secure a longer term and solid space for social business.

We left Manchester having been asked the question, “What do we see as the future of Social enterprises in ten years?’ I want to see a high-street of social businesses where most services are delivered and where the products made are doing good by virtue of their business model.  This could be through sourcing the products in a way that avoids environmental damage (like Fairphone,) or employing a majority of people who have mental ill health, disabilities or ex-offenders like Realise Futures or Kibble or having a fee structure that allows the organisation to substantially subsidise those who could otherwise  not afford their services like LEYF or GLL.

So, let’s start that process by singing in tune to Frank Sinatra, and start spreading the news.