Posted by: bevmeldrum | December 11, 2007

The Shifting Relationship Between Social Enterprise and Mainstream Business

There is an interesting post on the School for Social Entrepreneurs blog about the developing relationship between social enterprise and the private sector.

The post started with quotes from Cliff Prior, of UnLtd, and Nigel Kershaw, of Big Issue Invest, debating whether the imitation of the social business model by mainstream businesses would discredit social enterprise or if we see that social change is forthcoming whether we should be quite so fussy about structures.

You can read the entire post on their blog here.

What particularly interested me was the reflections in the post on Julia Meek article from Catalyst’s Social Business Blog (Social Businesses: Victims of their own success?)

How did we know that fairtrade had broken into the mainstream? It was when the supermarkets started selling their own-branded fair trade products.

Julia describes it in this way:

“These supermarkets, electricity suppliers, market leaders and others have been able to watch the market and let social businesses prove the effectiveness of their various approaches. On observing a successful one the companies have been able to leverage their infrastructure, human capital, market positioning etc. to adopt it quickly themselves, marketing ’social’ products and services to the same target audience and at a lower price than can feasibly be offered by smaller, social businesses.”

The School For Social Entrepreneur’s blog post makes the point that yes of course, when we see the local Primary Care Trust split itself up forming Community Interest Companies that it then contracts with something isn’t right.

However, as they put it:

“And surely the movement should be proud to be influencing and changing the mainstream in the way that it has: how satisfying, however imperfectly done, to see big supermarkets pushing fairtrade coffee, to see Fiji water pushing its carbon neutrality, to see M&S put out its Plan A…none of which would have been achieved without hundreds of activists, campaigners and social entrepreneurs, and none of which we could have said even one, two, three years ago. Where we are strongest is in demonstrating, through quality practice and delivery, that things can be done differently….and that they are better done that way.”

How will we know when social enterprise has truly made it into the mainstream … when everyone is copying the model.


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