Chenterprise: Oh No, Not Another Social Enterprise Definition…

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Charity sits at home with a glass of sherry listening to Classic FM. Having relaxed in a warm bath of bubbles, Charity eases back into the recliner, picks up a paperback and contemplates a little nap whilst thinking of new ways to help the world’s needy and vulnerable…

Suddenly, there is a screech of brakes outside. A dull thud of heavy bass subsides and in swaggers Social Enterprise, stomping all over charity’s clean carpet with heavy Nike Airs. “What’s this crap?” remarks social enterprise, switching off Classic FM and flicking on MTV. “Excuse me, I was here first”, implores Charity, politely. “Whatever”, responds Social Enterprise…

This clash of cultures, heavily hammed-up for blogging purposes, describes a little of how I feel lately as our sector looks to redefine itself. As a teenager, long before I knew of Out & About, I wanted to work for a charity. I wanted to make a difference to disabled children and didn’t want to get bound up by all the red tape I perceived there to be in the public sector, nor work endless hours on crap pay to line the pockets of a private company.

If you wanted to make a difference in the mid 1990’s, then working for a charity seemed to be the only way. However, I have never bought into some of the staple stereotypes of the sector; I don’t like herbal tea, I look daft in sandals and stay away from the endless cycle of coffee mornings.

So, when social enterprise burst through the door a few years ago, I got up from my tatty recliner and threw my arms around their bling-covered neck in a welcoming embrace. As a charity, we felt like a social enterprise already. We’d grown by over 200% in 3 years on the back of public sector contracts and SLAs and, whilst we always welcome community support, our survival did not depend on rattling tins outside Tesco on Saturday.

Fast-forward to 2012 and working for a charity is no longer the only way to make a difference. Charities, Social Enterprises, Social Businesses, Spinouts, Co-operatives, Mutuals… as the list grows, it would seem that the need to resolve the perfect definition of social enterprise grows with it. Last week I gave a talk at the University of Essex and someone asked me if I would rather Out & About was a charity or a social enterprise. To me, it’s the equivalent of asking if I’d rather have coffee or a chocolate hobnob; can’t I have both?

In the last few weeks, I’ve spoken to social entrepreneurs who think charities have had their day and charities who fear the rise of social enterprise heralds the death-knell for them. I’ve spoken to my bamboozled friends outside the sector who would never dream there are so many models of delivering social outcomes and I’ve spoken to vulnerable people who don’t care what we call ourselves, as long as we’re there. and do a good job.

I’m reminded of that TV advert a few years ago, Toyota I think, where the cars don’t like tractors on the road, the cyclists don’t like the cars, etc. and it ends by saying “aren’t we all just trying to get somewhere?”. Yes, we are.

I’m not trying to downplay the need to define one’s legal structure. It is important, but not as important as what you’re actually setting out to do. I’ve seen examples where the quest to succinctly define the legal form can distract from or slow down addressing the actual social need, so my simple advice to any budding social entrepreneur would be;

1) Decide what is the social need you’re going to address and how?

2) Agree a legal form that fits the above – and NOT the other way round.

3) JFDI.

Now, I’m off to slide one foot into a comfy slipper and wedge the other into a Nike Air because we are a chenterprise and I’m a chentrepreneur!

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