News Analysis: The young generation takes control

A group of young entrepreneurs is set to breathe life into social enterprise schemes.

Social entrepreneurs were at a crossroads on this month's social enterprise day - where should they go from here? Last year's commemoration was a fanfare of policy announcements as the long-awaited social enterprise action plan was launched at Downing Street, championed by Gordon Brown himself. This time, the events were much more low-key - no Muhammed Yunus appearing on a video link, no major Government statements: this was no longer a leap into such uncharted territory.

However, a sense of direction was provided by the formation of a Youth Commission for Social Enterprise. Members of this group of 21 young entrepreneurs have shown the drive to make their individual business ideas work and appear to have the energy to carry the whole enterprise movement forward. Within minutes of their launch event at the Treasury, they had the whole audience shouting out their mission statement and participating in the excitement of a different venture.

Increasing awareness

These 21 commissioners, who were brought together on a summer school run by the Big Lottery Fund's entrepreneurship programme, say they want to increase awareness of social enterprise in schools and universities and provide support to young people who are struggling to make their enterprises work.

This will be a boost to the Government's work to promote social enterprise as a mainstream concept. While the group's manifesto pledges that the commission will be independent and non-partisan, its launch certainly did no damage to the Government's parallel announcement that it is to introduce social enterprise modules to the GCSE syllabus.

The emphasis on youth has other political advantages, not least because it is an opportunity to emphasise the positive contributions of young people rather than the more familiar concerns about antisocial behaviour. At the launch, third sector minister Phil Hope said: "We hear too much about young people being a problem in society." Instead, here was a group that had the obvious motivation to change. "You have taken an idea and you are making it happen in the way that only social entrepreneurs will," Hope said.

Crucially, the commission presents an opportunity for new ideas in a sector that is still dominated by the same key figures who were around five years ago.

Liam Black, director of Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Foundation, expressed relief on behalf of what he called the "exhausted middle-aged entrepreneurs" who, he said, could now afford to step back from the front line.

Ed Miliband, Minister for the Cabinet Office, also admitted at the launch that the time was right for a new impetus. "I feel like the social enterprise movement has badly needed you, and now you have arrived," he said.

Miliband also encouraged the entrepreneurs to use their considerable energies to keep asking questions and pushing for more. "Be ambitious and be awkward to the old generation of social entrepreneurs; and be awkward to government, because the way change happens is not by people being insiders and accepting things as they are, but by people being difficult," he said.

The question, however, is what the entrepreneurs should be difficult about. Certainly, there is more work to be done on access to finance, support for new organisations and public understanding of the social enterprise brand.

But the sector is divided on what the next steps should be, and especially on the issue of how to help consumers distinguish between genuine social enterprises and businesses that falsely claim to have a social output.

Cliff Prior, chief executive of social enterprise support group UnLtd, is a strong believer in the need for better regulation and a tightening of definitions of what can truly be called a social enterprise.

On the other side of the debate, Allison Ogden-Newton, chief executive of Social Enterprise London, is sceptical about the development of a quality mark that she feels could not operate effectively without significant and complex controls.

The future of social enterprise

These opposing views may well determine the future of social enterprise - whether it narrows to exclude potential imitators or widens to embrace any organisation that claims to have an ethical slant.

Nigel Kershaw, chief executive of Big Issue Invest, believes that if business adapts to social principles, social enterprise could eventually be abandoned altogether. "People need to look down into their own sectors and see the potential for social change - let's hope we're not still here in 10 years' time," he said.

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