THINKPIECE: Reality of social enterprise is only lip service

GRAEME LINDSAY, professor of marketing, AUDENCIA Nantes Ecole de Management

In times past, sleepless nights would be filled with thoughts of Joy Division lyrics. Nowadays my sleep is interrupted by considering the place of social enterprises within the business community. So travelling to the inaugural Business in Society conference in Paris, I was safe in the knowledge that a sleepless night awaited me.

All the signs were that this was a serious attempt by the European Commission, through CSR Europe, to develop frameworks to move the business community away from the hegemony of shareholder value to more socially aware ideals. It was pleasing to see that the European Commission's communique, which coincided with the conference, stressed the need for businesses to look towards social enterprises as exemplars of good practice.

However, the reality left me disappointed. The opening speeches were interesting with clever academics producing some clever ideas and socially aware business leaders showing how socially aware they are. But there was no contribution from representatives of social enterprise that could crystallise these two perspectives. In the session that followed, things started to unravel. Academics were seen to be unrealistic and intransigent while the business community was viewed as too wedded to shareholder value to see social responsibility as anything but a marketing tool.

We hear from governments and the EU about the need for social enterprises, but there seems to be some sort of ideological apartheid developing where social enterprises are kept apart from the wider business community.

If governments and the EU are serious about the role of social enterprises, they should do more to encourage dialogue between social enterprises and the wider business community. For instance, it would not be difficult to develop a twinning programme where non-profit organisations looking to be more business-like could help shareholder-based companies that want to be more socially aware.

This could be facilitated through the creation of a "dating agency" where potential partners sign up and are appropriately matched using government grants and tax advantages as incentives. Or am I just being unrealistic and intransigent again.

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