Newsmaker: For profit and for people

Helen Warrell

Allison Ogden-Newton Chief executive, Social Enterprise London - Believes that the public wants to see more ethical businesses.

It's not often that a third sector leader tells you they find business exciting, but Allison Ogden-Newton's belief in the future of social enterprise verges on an all-consuming passion.

"People who are engaged in developing a product or a service and selling it to a satisfied and varied market find that very exciting," she says.

"When you combine that with the knowledge that you are achieving a wide social benefit, you get to enjoy the rush of being good at business while occupying the moral high ground - a pretty rare and amazing place to be."

Ogden-Newton is in a pretty rare and amazing place herself. Since becoming chief executive of Social Enterprise London three years ago, she has built SEL into a key advisory service for enterprises in the capital, helping businesses that want to fulfil a social purpose and re-invest their profits.

Earlier this year, SEL set up its own social enterprise management consultancy branch, which, according to Ogden-Newton, has helped the organisation to hone its business skills and practise what it preaches.

Against this background, Ogden-Newton has high hopes for the Office of the Third Sector's long-awaited Social Enterprise Action Plan, which is due to be unveiled this week. "We want national recognition for social enterprise; that is terribly important," she says. "We need to build the brand. When your mother and mine know what social enterprise is and can point to one, then we've cracked it."

This age of greater awareness and recognition may not be far away. For Ogden-Newton, one of the biggest driving forces behind social enterprise at the moment is the feeling that the time is right. "People are really looking for a form of collateral activity that offers them more than simply profit," she says. "On one hand, you have an increasingly unstable voluntary and community sector; on the other you've got a general public that wants to see more ethical businesses."

But she is critical of the way government has handled social enterprise in the past, and is keen to see the Prime Minister implement some of his own joined-up thinking.

"There is a lack of strategic thinking and there are some very simple mistakes being made," Ogden-Newton says. "For instance, the Department of Health is clear that it wants to encourage social enterprises within the health sector, yet the Department of Trade & Industry is still talking about this being achieved through mainstream business support

"But only a fraction of those working in mainstream business support even know what social enterprise is, so they're hardly qualified to advise on it."

Having set up and run her own social enterprise called Web, an organisation training women builders, Ogden-Newton knows that even the smallest initiatives can achieve great things. "Social enterprise is not just about having influence within the market you create, but also about having social influence, even if your profit is very small," she says. "And that makes you powerful."

Perhaps one of Ogden-Newton's greatest aims is to demolish stereotypes and create an ethical business community that recognises a wide range of players, not on the basis of their background but on the strength of their skills.

Dismissing the traditional ideal of the entrepreneur as a charismatic, engaging and confident leader, Ogden-Newton says: "A great social entrepreneur is someone who wants to do it and is willing to take the risk. The only thing they've got in common is enthusiasm and drive. It's about passion, about understanding what you're trying to achieve and being motivated to achieve it."

- See Opinion, page 13

OGDEN-NEWTON CV

2003: Chief executive, Social Enterprise London

1992: Chief executive, Web Group (Women's Education in Building)

1989: Senior research officer, Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, London

1987: International campaigns organiser, International Ladies Garment Workers Union, New York.

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