What's the future for social enterprise?

David Ainsworth follows the debate

Social enterprises don't want to be put in a special box for special people, according to Sam Conniff: "We just want the rest of the world to understand how we work."

Conniff, chief executive of social marketing agency Livity, is pretty ticked off about people who don't take social enterprise seriously.

He is part of a group of social enterprise chief executives at Livity's offices for a Social Enterprise Coalition discussion on the future of their sector, and debate has turned to whether social enterprises should have a special legal or tax status.

Non-profit-distributing models don't need preferential treatment, according to Sophi Tranchell, managing director of Divine Chocolate, a firm owned largely by 45,000 Ghanaian cocoa producers. If anything, it is just the opposite, she says.

"It's not about whether you want a social return or an economic return," she says.

"We've seen in recent months that organisations without values, driven by the pursuit of short-term profit, aren't a good model. Organisations with employee buy-in, which exist for a social purpose, have much more sustainability."

"It's so important to have values in business," agrees Dai Powell, chief executive of Hackney Community Transport. "People want to work in those organisations."

Returning to the tax break issue, Tranchell points out that another problem with finding tax breaks for social enterprises is the difficulty in agreeing what a social enterprise actually is.

"Do they include housing associations?" she says. "What about development trusts? What about fair-trade companies? It's important if you are planning to give out tax relief, for example."

There is agreement that social enterprises might not need special treatment, but they could benefit from specialist education and training - both for budding entrepreneurs and for the investors and public sector workers they must deal with.

"We need bank managers to understand the social enterprise model when people come to them asking for money," Conniff tells the meeting.

Conniff disappears to make an urgent phone call, but assures the departing throng that, in true social enterprise spirit, a group of hungry apprentices upstairs will quickly polish off any lunch leftovers.

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