Viewpoint: Don't miss the bus

Social enterprises will have to innovate if they are to avoid being overtaken by the private sector, argues social activist and author Robert Ashton

My 40th birthday present to myself was bus driving lessons. Once I’d sneaked out for a trial run in a delicious 25-year-old Ford coach I was hooked. I had to take my test and drive these things for real.

As is always the case with these things, time and career have eroded that early passion and it’s now several years since I navigated my way through the traffic to Victoria Coach Station from behind the wheel of a 40ft long Volvo coach. What has remained, though, is a secret interest in buses of all kinds.

Now, imagine that your social enterprise is a bus. You are taking people you want to help on a journey. It’s probably not an actual transport journey; it’s likely that the trip is more philosophical or behavioural. If it were a real bus, you’d have bus lanes to drive in protected by law from cars and trucks. The path you tread as a social enterprise affords you no such protection.

Your progress can be impeded by parts of the for-profit sector that surrounds you. They can overtake you, cut in front and even, horror of horrors, pull over at the next bus stop and offer your next group of passengers a lift in their shiny new cars.

“How dare they?” I hear you scream. “We’re making huge sacrifices here to change the world and it’s simply not fair that others can come and trade on our patch.” How wrong can you be?

The corporate world is fast waking up to social conscience. Corporate social responsibility is poised to grow. No longer will it be merely a sop to investors wishing to keep people happy while focusing on profit. It’s about to move into the marketing department, where there’s a lot more money to spend.

You see, every successful business knows the importance of a healthy relationship with each and every customer. Today’s consumer has become aware of the huge injustices that exist in the world. They are finding it harder to ignore and they want to see more done – but not if it means paying more income tax.

Now, I’m no economist, but to me there are only two places money can come from to fund social change. It’s either funded by government through the taxes they collect, or by traders of all flavours investing some of their margins in doing good. It’s what all social enterprises do, but now everyone’s about to jump on board and queer your pitch.

Fair trade, free range, organic, recycled and many more words and phrases are being used by the for-profit sector to reassure their marketplace. The motive is always to show the customer that, if they buy here, some of the profit is invested in achieving some social purpose. This also spills over into employment policy. You might employ disadvantaged people because you love them. Businesses will hire, train and retain them because their customers love them.

The $64,000 question that everyone running a social enterprise has to answer is this: which of these two models is truly sustainable and capable of growth? There can be no doubt that those for-profit people will engage in the social enterprise world only if there’s money to be made. That makes them sustainable, if not totally aligned with your vision of ethical trading.

Of course, everyone likes things to become self-sustaining. This demonstrates that people want, value and will fund (in whatever way) the purpose for which a social enterprise was established. No legislator is going to give you the social enterprise equivalent of an exclusive, protected bus lane.

If you’re going to be truly sustainable, you need to become more flexible and use the whole road at times, even if this means competing for space with those with a purely for-profit motive. You must be prepared to race these rivals to the next ‘bus stop’, where the customers you’re all after are not very patiently waiting.

Competition drives innovation – and innovation, in my view, is what the sector needs most.

  • Robert Ashton is an author, entrepreneur and social activist. He helps charities and social enterprises build win:win partnerships with commercial concerns. www.robertashton.co.uk

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