Interview: Jonathan Bland, chief executive, Social Enterprise Coalition

The social enterprise pioneer, who has been lobbying politicians about the value of the concept for 10 years, tells Helen Warrell what's next for the movement as it takes its place at the forefront of the political agenda.

Jonathan Bland is on a high. Celebrating 10 years of being involved with social enterprise, first leading Social Enterprise London and now as chief executive of the UK-wide Social Enterprise Coalition, there is much to be grateful for.

Bland returned to Britain in 1998, having worked in Spain. Since then he has seen the development of a working social economy, spearheaded by the movement of social enterprise into the Cabinet Office. Now courted by Labour and Conservative politicians, social enterprise has become politically contested ground, and Bland feels it has achieved the recognition it deserves. "We've started to get some trust from government," he says. "In a way, I've led that political engagement on behalf of social enterprise over the past 10 years."

Bland has had conversations with the Prime Minister and has regular contact with Cabinet ministers such as Hazel Blears. This month he will meet work and pensions secretary James Purnell. He also has close contact with David Cameron and his shadow cabinet, helping to plan where the social economy can fit into the party's wider political strategy.

When Bland first approached a civil servant in the Department of Trade and Industry a decade ago, he was bluntly told to go away. Now that interest has picked up, the movement is facing different challenges. "It's a question of how, having recognised what social enterprise can do, we can move the political intent into action," Bland says. "We've heard rhetoric, but in some cases it doesn't turn into action, so our job is to help to drive things through."

This gap between will and action is particularly noticeable, says Bland, who believes that although Britain is "one of the best places in the world at talking about social enterprise", it could fall behind other countries in developing practical business models.

"If Britain manages to follow through from the work that we've done in the past few years, we will be able to lead the way," he says.

But Bland believes that, although the inclusion of social enterprise in the Office of the Third Sector has gained it political influence, the movement risks being seen as an "appendage" to the voluntary sector. "There's a danger of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform thinking 'we don't have to worry about them - they're in the third sector'," he says. "Social enterprise is not about volunteering or philanthropy; it's about being a business and being in the market."

But despite this emphasis on the marketplace, Bland admits that consumers may still not understand what social businesses are. The Government's 2006 Social Enterprise Action Plan estimated that only one in four people knew what a social enterprise was, and Bland is not keen to answer whether that is any less true today. People may drink Belu water, which is produced by a social enterprise that diverts profits to charities working in developing countries, but do they understand its significance?

Bland evades the questions slightly by answering that the coalition's most direct role is influencing the public service markets, rather than consumers. "Our job is to challenge government on how those markets are being made and how value in those commissioning environments is being defined," he says.

Ten years in, Bland is still enthusiastic. "I've been driven by a frustration that social enterprise can do so much more, but people don't see it," he says. "It has so much to offer that it's a no-brainer."

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