Social Enterprise, the future of business?

Social Enterprise, the future of business?

Social Enterprise Futures Summit

Chums from Boingboing, University of Brighton and Blackpool’s pilot of the Resilience Revolution went on an exciting virtual journey in the last week of November 2020 – whisked away to the online Social Enterprise Futures Summit. Run by Social Enterprise UK, this was a re-invigorating retreat for organisations who, like us, are passionate about contributing to positive social change. We found out about the event through its fabulous co-organiser, Goddess Karen Lynch, who mentored Angie through the Human Lending Library Scheme. After that, a trail of Resilience Revolutionaries found themselves cajoled into going and have never looked back…

The Summit ended up being a fabulous life-affirming two days. We heard from industry-famous change-makers, but also from those who bring new energy to the sector. We left feeling motivated to BE BOLDER, GO BIGGER and DO BETTER! There were simply too many inspiring talks to mention them all, but take a look at the agenda and the Social Enterprise Roll of Honour to warm the cockles of your heart and find out more about the fab work so many marvellous folks are doing.

Being immersed in this virtual world with all these people we were keen to gather as many useful tips as possible. Angie was on a mission to squeeze out of folks any key steps we can take in our own work so we can all learn from their experiences. While not everyone was easily pinned down on specific actions to support social justice in business, we’ve taken a round-up of key points from the two days. So here’s a handy summary of actions as highlighted by some ace champions of social enterprise. Spoiler alert… this is  our recipe for success:

Insist on social value
– Champion diversity
– Challenge income inequality
– Champion climate action

Be revolutionary
– Hold companies to account
– Challenge politicians
– Be the change you want to see
– Acknowledge and debate the contradictions

What are Social Enterprises (SEs)?
Social enterprises are businesses that are changing the world for the better. Like traditional businesses they aim to make a profit but it’s what they do with their profits that sets them apart – reinvesting or donating them to create positive social change. Social enterprises create employment and reinvest their profits back into their business or the local community. This allows them to tackle social problems, improve people’s life chances, provide training and employment opportunities for those furthest from the market, support communities and help the environment.

In support of social enterprises

The summit certainly was a brilliant advert for UK Social Enterprises (SEs) and there was no shortage of heart-warming stories celebrating the achievements of both established and emerging SEs.

A big shout out goes to those fab entrepreneurs who rose to COVID-19 challenges, working really hard to ensure communities were supported in a range of ways. Instead of sitting on their derrières watching telly, social entrepreneurs have been delivering dinners, doing amazing community dental work, turning yoga studios into community hubs, converting community pubs into soup kitchens, running ethical supermarkets, producing PPE, hand sanitiser and more. And while we’re grateful to them all, there’s a special place in our hearts for Neil Woodbridge and the staff of Thurrock Lifestyle Solutions, who worked 24/7 in homes with people with learning difficulties. We know what they did is crucial because people with a range of disabilities are so very adversely affected by the pandemic as we pointed out recently in one of our submissions to the UK Government. Nor will we forget Generation Medics, an organisation that usually works to get typically excluded people into health care jobs and volunteering, who supported an incredible 4000 volunteers into the NHS.

The ability of SEs to step up in our time of need is not just down to their passion for social benefit, but also highlights some of the core strengths of this type of business. The agility and flexibility of SEs can run rings around large corporations, and their willingness to innovate and forge new partnerships often places social entrepreneurs at the cutting edge in a whole host of markets.

Perhaps then, it shouldn’t be surprising that SEs have caught the attention of many big corporations who want in on their secrets. And perhaps that explains why an event celebrating SEs had several big businesses lurking in the digital shadows. While some corporate sorts can (mostly) be counted as allies, such as Unilever’s Paul Polman, Co-op Group’s Steve Murrells and SAP Software’s Adaire Fox-Martin, some Boingboingers bridled a bit at having the event sponsored by finance titans Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

While with one hand Deloitte and PWC might be doing loads to encourage social enterprises, perhaps with the other the fees that these organisations charge the government and the number of clients they advise on how to use complex tax avoidance schemes contributes to the increased need for foodbanks and support programmes for vulnerable people, etc.

According to Paul Polman (former CEO of Unilever one of the world’s largest multinational companies) and Adaire Fox-Martin (executive board member of SAP a massive software company) SEs have important things to teach corporations, such as lessons about agility and innovation – but hopefully not how to make money for PPE go-betweens and millionaire shareholders our Angie chipped in. If corporations are going to learn vital lessons from SEs then it’s about teaching them to align their values with positive social change. Adaire says corporations need to learn how great social enterprises are and how they can be supported to share the values of social enterprises.

The impressive Paul Polman supports blind people in developing countries rather than sit on his fortune and expertise… What a great example for other ex-CEO’s to follow!

Paul and other speakers noted that the pandemic has increased recognition for SEs. This raises awareness of the need to build more inclusive societies supportive of communities, for more businesses to be social enterprises, and the need for large corporations to focus on social benefit. Certainly, with social development goals’ progress slipping back 15 years, and income inequality rising in the wake of the pandemic, now more than ever businesses need to better support the regeneration of society.

“There is no route to the future that does not have social enterprise at its centre. There is no route to levelling up that does not include social enterprise. No route to stronger communities, to socially responsible businesses, to better society as a whole without social enterprise.”

– Former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown

Learning from the best

To show us the way, we were thrilled to be able to pick the brains of some of the SE community’s longest-serving leaders – Claire Dove OBE (Blackburne House Group), Dai Powell OBE (Hackney Community Transport), Sarah Crawley (iSE and Digbeth Social Enterprise Quarter) and Sophi Tranchell MBE (Former CEO, Divine Chocolate).

We were also introduced to the exciting endeavours of a new generation of social entrepreneurs. They reminded us that the basic ingredients needed to start up a SE are a passion for social justice and a strong imagination of a better world, paired with inspiring problem-solving skills. All of them have shown how SEs can help build community and instil hope in others. From Rhonda, the accidental social entrepreneur working to digitally connect businesses within her island community, to Josh, supporting ex-offenders to repair iPhones, Aimee selling books to support siblings with autism and donate books to schools, and Santi organising clothes swaps for the Transgender community. There was no shortage of entrepreneurs to provide encouragement and help us put together our recipe for success.

Insist on social value 

“If you’re not being social there’s a real risk you’re being anti-social” – Kate Raworth

Divine inspiration:
Just like us at Boingboing, ‘Nothing about us without us’ is one of Divine Chocolate’s (DC) mantras – DC is co-owned by farmers in Ghana.

A strong message from many speakers was that all companies now must have more than financial targets. As long as companies focus exclusively on financial profits, businesses can continue to deplete social and environmental resources. The SE community was unanimous about the need to move industry from:

Degenerative to Restorative
to Distributive
   Exclusive to Inclusive

Claire Dove told us to do this by insisting on social value in all contracts and commissions and committing to sector partnerships. Claire and Paul agreed that it is about creating new social contracts that are more inclusive and focused on tackling societal problems.

And it seems Paul is putting his money where his mouth is, having created the foundation, Imagine. Described as a ‘courageous collective using business to achieve global goals’, Imagine is getting a critical mass of CEOs together to solve issues and help drive systemic change. This includes getting leading fashion companies to champion biodiversity and environmental issues. Impressive stuff, but Claire brought a more down to earth perspective, with the arguement that it’s about quality, not just quantity, especially when it comes to offering apprenticeships. Even small SEs can bring life-changing transformation to the lives of individuals.

Insisting on social value is not limited to those within businesses, this is something we can all do in the choices we make. Wherever possible we can move away from buying products and services from businesses who don’t give anything back, and invest in our communities instead by supporting social enterprises.

Champion diversity

Another clear theme from social entrepreneurs was the importance of inclusion and there were some cracking presentations on this. Supporting a more diverse workforce is seen as mutually beneficial for both society and business. Not only does inclusion of young people and people from diverse backgrounds drive down income inequality, but a diversity of perspectives and experience improves innovation, problem-solving and business relevance. Many fine folks from SEs not only advocated for inclusion but provided examples in practice.

The wonderful Claire Dove OBE supports women from ethnic minority backgrounds into employment, Generation Medics support typically excluded people into healthcare positions, while James Timpson OBE and Josh Babarinde OBE support ex-offenders into the workplace. Emma from Blackpool’s pilot of the Resilience Revolution especially enjoyed listening to James Timpson give us an insight into the successful Timpson brand; why it works so well and demonstrating just how much he helps communities and ex-prisoners by helping to get them back on the right track. He could proudly say that his employees were paid 100% of their salaries and benefits during COVID-19, and all suppliers were paid on time. Impressive.

Alongside all the warm fuzzy feelings of pride in the SE community, there were some thought-provoking comments with an interesting discussion raised by this question posed to the panel: Should social enterprises be founded by people with relevant lived experience? In a nutshell, the panel said yes, and no. Lived experience is invaluable, but allies are also crucial.

We think it would be great to see even more collaborators with lived experience, and indeed founders with lived experience talking at these events, otherwise it can come across as a bit ‘doing to’ rather than ‘doing with’ – like people doing charity work rather than true collaboration. We struggle with this dynamic in Boingboing.

Challenge income inequality

We keep banging on about how inclusive business practices can contribute towards driving down income inequalities, but that is not enough. We need to actively challenge unnecessary pay differentials, and this was clearly where things got a bit more challenging for some event speakers – especially with our fearless Angie on the case (never let it be said that Angie gets a bit carried away at conferences, see some of her blogs at if you like to splutter out your tea sometimes when browsing the web!). Our love affair with Divine Chocolate was a perhaps a little dulled when someone asked if it matters that Divine Chocolate is processed in Europe, given the implications for share of wealth going to (financially poorer)  countries in Africa? The answer clearly isn’t simple. When this was followed up with the question of whether there are limits to system change by one organisation, we were left wondering whether to celebrate the progress or lament the limitations.

Then there was Steve Murrells, CEO of Co-op Group, who side-stepped Angie’s direct challenge on his own earnings. But no matter, she is a researcher so she just looked it up!  It is true that The Co-op, a consumer-owned co-operative running an ethically responsible business, is, according to their Annual Report 2019, doing some good work supporting local communities ’to create a fairer world’. However, the same report also shows Steve’s total earnings for the period as £1,485,000 (see page 108). It’s interesting to look at the difference in pay between the CEO and the average hourly rate for The Co-operative Group employees in the UK, which was £8.94 an hour in 2020.

Champion climate action

The Climate Emergency was big on the agenda, with multiple talks and panel discussions about what role SEs have in making a carbon net-zero future possible. University of Brighton PhD researcher and Boingboing volunteer, Viktoria, particularly liked the talks from the climate and environmental leaders – some of whom are already or are close to having a zero-carbon enterprise. We saw some very creative ideas, from carpet recycling to all ability cycling.

Here, the speakers were largely in two camps, with those from corporate/policy backgrounds advocating for net-zero by 2050 then being challenged by SEs who are actively tackling climate change issues, and who are ambitious enough to insist on net-zero by 2030.

“This is a world where children behave like adults and adults behave like children, we need to enrol the young and people from diverse backgrounds, social enterprises are a fundamental part of this, they are at the foreground to move the world to a better place. We couldn’t rebuild better without the social sector who are at the forefront” – Paul Polman

We were also reminded that a greener, more inclusive rebuilding of society creates more resilient jobs. Although this is all music to our ears, Viktoria asks us not to heap too much praise on corporate allies like Paul, who are determined to stick to a 2050 net-carbon zero goal. As Peter Holbrook, Chief Executive of Social Enterprise UK, put it, Paul showed great leadership but: “Some of us are cynical if companies like Unilever can do good, and that’s still to discuss”.

If Corporations like Unilever stick to a 2050 net-zero target, apart from the fact that 30 years will be too late for any of us, this also means that CEO’s can make commitments while delaying responsibility – as they don’t actually have to act or change during their leadership. We also challenge the narrative that CEO’s and big corporations have only started to understand climate change in the past 10 years – when we know they’ve had decades of warnings by scientists from as early as the 70s.

Ellen Petts, Karin Sode, Kresse Wesling and Jim Blakemore put it nicely by saying that as a sector we need to be ambitious and go for a target of 2030, as it’s essential for our survival. However hard it may be. Products and people to make it happen are available, it’s now about a mindset shift.

Championing climate action isn’t just for businesses working in the environmental sector, it’s for all sectors, with several speakers advocating for social and environmental targets alongside traditional financial targets for all businesses. As Viktoria reminds us, the social injustices that SEs challenge and the climate emergency can often be traced back to similar roots. Those extracting resources from the earth without replenishing them also tend to depend on exploiting low-paid workers in often precarious working conditions to make a profit in the name of serving (already wealthy) shareholders. Collective action by businesses can support a better future. We must stay optimistic even though some individuals are already despairing. Together we can still change our trajectory.

Be revolutionary

“Social enterprises have been nice, we are nice. But are we radical enough, have we been radical enough? Has the world improved in the last 30 years? I think we need to leave behind the nice, be more outspoken, more political. We need to be revolutionary!” – Dai Powell

What a call to action – right up the Boingboing street. We have been passionate to challenge ourselves to do just that, have a look at what the Resilience Revolution is all about, and read up on our recent submissions of evidence on the impact on young people and those living with disabilities.

Dai Powell wasn’t the only one calling for revolutionary action, speakers like Paul Polman argue that as well as plugging massive gaps (as Covid innovators have), we social entrepreneurs need to be agitating for social change. For example, how many of us have also been lobbying government and our MPs for better systems so that we don’t have to plug the gaps in the first place? Here in our Resilience community, we call this beating the odds and changing the odds. It’s tough to do both, but we really need to.

Hold companies to account

“You treasure what you measure” – Paul Polman

The Divine (Chocolate) Sophi Tranchell argued that we should call companies to account and make them report on wider indicators than finance. She wasn’t alone, Paul and Dai also called for financial markets to change to include environmental and social measures.

What is more, Sophi said, this information needs to be in the public domain through changes in corporate reporting, a move supported by Dai who insisted we need to challenge Companies House. Having such information in the public domain opens the way for us all to make responsible decisions about who we give our money to, both as consumers and investors.

Challenge politicians

Dai Powell implores us not only to speak out more, but to be more political. That not only means politicising our work, but as Gordon Brown says, we should call out ‘unsocial enterprises’. Unsocial enterprises have been making huge profits from producing garbage PPE and ripping off the public, while responsible SEs have been reinvesting their PPE profits back into the community. Yet as we have seen, lucrative contracts are given to wholly unsuitable companies supported by Government cronyism, and meanwhile SEs often remain overlooked.

While it may seem that there’s increasing recognition of the value of SEs to both big business and the Government, it also seems apparent that the Government doesn’t regard SEs as businesses at all – can you believe that SEs are considered under The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, rather than Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy?

Be the change you want to see

For us at Boingboing we think a key part of the recipe for successful SEs and social change is to ‘be the change you want to see’.

We can all support social enterprises as entrepreneurs, employees, and consumers. 

One of the simplest and most powerful steps we can all take is to buy our goods and services from social enterprises wherever possible, and to stop giving our money to big corporations who, unlike SEs, fail to re-invest profits in our communities and environment.

Sadly because this thought provoking and flawlessly choreographed conference was online there was no disco to round things off. No chance then for the incredibly hard-working organisers to get very drunk and chill out by cavorting with random strangers met during the poster session. A far more honourable ending ensued.  Closure came as a plea for us to all challenge, persuade and encourage people who do not agree about the vital role of social enterprises. They should learn to understand and, perhaps, together we can all make the positive change that is so desperately needed. We can now create the momentum to change the financial system, with a combination of social actions and businesses leading by example, showing that businesses can be the leaders for positive change. Cracking stuff we thought and off we trotted committed to doing our bit and drawing on our university identities and collaborations to further this aim too – the role of universities in supporting social enterprises and partnering them was a missing feature that we would like to see addressed in the future. So we really can’t wait for the next event. Let’s hope though that this time there will be a disco and perhaps even a little bar? Sponsored by some fab SE drinks company and with Goddess Karen Lynch taking the prime keynote slot in the hours leading up to our post-conference tipple?

Watch our workshops: how to do community co-research on health equity

Watch our workshops: how to do community co-research on health equity

Created as part of the ongoing Community Solutions for Health Equity project that Boingboing Foundation are proudly part of, we are pleased to share recordings of a series of workshops held recently in Blackpool. These workshops are free resources to be taken advantage of by any community members or organisations looking for a beginner’s guide to developing the research skills and knowledge needed to explore health inequalities in coastal areas.

A guide to becoming more eco-friendly in Blackpool and the Fylde Coast

A guide to becoming more eco-friendly in Blackpool and the Fylde Coast

Hi, I’m Maya, and I wanted to say a big thank you to you for reading. These guides were created to help people in Blackpool and the Fylde Coast become more environmentally friendly, without feeling too overwhelmed by climate issues. They were produced as part of the Boingboing Activist in Residence project, which gave me the opportunity to work as an Eco-activist in Residence at Blackpool Victoria Hospital. I decided that I wanted to use this role to make two guides: one for local residents, and another for Blackpool Teaching Hospitals’ Green Champions.

The Research Ready Communities pilot continued

The Research Ready Communities pilot continued

For the past year and a half Boingboing has been working on a Research Ready Communities pilot project in Blackpool alongside the National Institute for Health Research as part of their Under-served Communities programme. Typically, much of the funding for health research in the UK goes to universities in London, Oxford and Cambridge, but health research is needed the most in places like Blackpool, where the harmful impacts of health inequalities are worst felt.

The Boingboing Resilience Framework

The Boingboing Resilience Framework

The Resilience Framework is a handy table that summarises ‘what works’ when supporting children and young people’s resilience according to the Resilience Research base. The Resilience Framework forms a cornerstone of our research and practice. On this page we have pulled together lots of useful links so you can find out all about the Resilience Framework.

An introduction to the Research Ready Communities pilot

An introduction to the Research Ready Communities pilot

For the past year and a half Boingboing has been working on a Research Ready Communities pilot project in Blackpool alongside the National Institute for Health Research as part of their Under-served Communities programme. Typically, much of the funding for health research in the UK goes to universities in London, Oxford and Cambridge, but health research is needed the most in places like Blackpool, where the harmful impacts of health inequalities are worst felt.

Loops – a review

Loops – a review

On 22nd February Grace and Lauren, members of the Activist Alliance, attended the show Loops at the Blackpool Grand Theatre. It was a play made in collaboration with Liverpool Everyman + Playhouse, 20 Stories High theatre company and, “a brilliant group of activists and artists who all shared important stories of what their experiences were, with courage, honesty and jokes”.

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