Opinion: Third Voice - Social enterprises need support as well as scrutiny

Allison Ogden-Newton, chief executive of Social Enterprise London

Although I do not agree with Paul Palmer's sentiment that social enterprises are a non-guilt-based substitution for charity, I can entirely understand the questions he raised in his article (Third Sector, 10 May).

We need to cut through the hype surrounding social enterprise, the overblown and unrealistic sentiment from both government and the third sector, to get to the real issues facing social entrepreneurs.

The fact that social enterprise is new, creative and has generated substantial press coverage has led to pressure. Some voluntary organisations are feeling as though social enterprise is being shoved down their throats. Let's be clear: social enterprise is not and cannot be suitable for everyone.

Large swathes of the sector will find that social enterprise does not work for them. Social enterprise is very difficult, and thrives only when the will meets the market and the means.

However, allegations that social enterprise is an example of 'new spin, old story' are unfair. They come from people who want a quick fix and who get frustrated by the time the development of sustainable social enterprises takes. To grow a new business model with the best entrepreneurial talent takes years. Progress should be allowed to come in a steady trickle that allows social enterprises to establish themselves. Changes need to occur in procurement too. Unfortunately, government procurement officers are under pressure to buy cheap. Councils need to recognise the value of having services delivered through social enterprises.

Social enterprise works in an environment that is different from what the sector has been used to. The relationship between social enterprises and customers is different from that between sector organisations and their beneficiaries. Both parties have a sense of control and independence.

The social enterprise can undertake activities to attract more customers and can target the sections of the population it believes may bring the biggest business benefit. The customer can choose between companies if the product, service or even the customer service do not meet their requirements.

If social enterprises are given the support to grow, their potential is limitless. If, however, they are left in a hothouse environment, scrutinised, but without the space to grow, they will struggle.

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