As social finance grows, so do the challenges it faces

Sometimes it pays to look up from the day job and consider the wider world, says Nick Temple of Social Enterprise UK

Nick Temple
Nick Temple

When you are stuck on the day-to-day treadmill of your work, it is easy to forget to take note of what is happening more broadly.

I had this feeling in the past few weeks because Social Enterprise UK is running the #notinourname campaign to stop the software company Salesforce from trademarking the term 'social enterprise'. It's also organising events, one-to-one support, new member offers and completing consultancy assignments - so far, so treadmill.

Taking a few minutes out on the train home, I looked at Twitter for the first time in a while and found there was a huge amount of traffic about the Grameen Bank and the Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus. I found that the Bangladeshi government had renewed its attempts to take control of the bank away from Yunus, one of its founders, and the organisation's employees.

Yunus, 72, was removed as chief executive in March 2011 for being older than the legal retirement age of 60 for banks in Bangladesh, a decision he appealed against without success. In the past few weeks, the Bangladeshi government has changed the ordinance of the bank so that it has greater control over who the next managing director will be - a move that has provoked significant disquiet, not only in Bangladesh but also around the world. Figures as diverse as the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the entrepreneur Richard Branson have criticised the move and been reported in newspapers. To date, the Bangladeshi government is sticking to its poorly aimed guns.

The relevance for social enterprise practitioners in the UK is more substantial than just a story about the world's leading social entrepreneur in a fight with government. Yunus is widely viewed as the father of microcredit and, although other organisations are now larger, Grameen is still viewed as the pioneer in the field of social investment and social finance. The future of the bank has ramifications for the whole movement.

The profile and brand of Yunus and Grameen had grown so much as to become a threat to the power of the government, and this profile was a result of the scale of their achievements - not so much entering the mainstream as creating an entirely new one.

While the UK government rightly seeks to export our sector's policy knowledge and practical experience, its Bangladeshi equivalent is intent on damaging the reputation of one of its own world-leading assets. What the Grameen example shows is that with scale comes increasing power and increasing responsibility - but also increasing complexities: if you challenge the status quo, the status quo sometimes bites back.

Two other thoughts on social enterprise and social investment emerge from the story. The first is that we need to continue to be ambitious and challenge the status quo. We must engage and work with the 'establishment' in whichever field, but also be free to challenge and build alternatives outside existing norms.

The second is that we should never forget the importance of ownership. While Grameen is an extreme example of government intervention, the wider issue of social investment is bound up with ownership, whether we are talking about community shares, equity investments or institutional boards. Governance and ownership are at the heart of achieving the appropriate balance between the social and financial in investments and enterprises: something as true in Darlington as in Dhaka.

Nick Temple is director of business and enterprise at Social Enterprise UK.

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