One challenge that the SocialFinanceLab team faces is that start-up consultants are often not aware of what social enterprises are and how they are different from other start-ups. The following are some thoughts from the UK perspective on this challenge.
Within the UK, the term Social Enterprise categorises such a wide range of diverse businesses and services, that it is difficult to convey an overarching view of what a standard Social Enterprise might look like or even how to pinpoint how someone might begin a Social Enterprise.
The Social Finance Lab project has allowed us the opportunity to delve deeper into the state of Social Enterprise within Europe to try to identify whether there is a catalyst for social entrepreneurs to begin their enterprise or whether most Social Enterprises are simply an idea that has evolved and gained traction over time, transforming into reality without explicit intentions from the outset.
In the UK, there has been transformation and growth in Social Enterprises over the previous 10 years, with the number of Social Enterprises increasing vastly. This has come hand in hand with a government approach to encourage business values which include an element of social value that can bring about a positive change in the community or wider regions. Because of this, we have seen a greatly increased support network for Social Enterprises by way of training, available funding mechanisms and one to one support through multiple networks.
However one thing seems to be lacking…a general approach.
When considering the UK, it is important to take into account that the 4 nations within have a devolved government meaning that each have varying support and options for social entrepreneurs, making it difficult to identify a common approach towards social enterprise support throughout. As part of the research of Social Finance Lab, the differences and similarities between each government's approach will be inspected to gain an overall view of what seems to be the successful approach to supporting enterprises with positive social values at its core.
This is a prevailing problem throughout Europe. We must ask ourselves, why does every region have a vastly different approach to Social Enterprises. Even down to the very definition of a Social Enterprise it is surprising to realise that a business that is categorised as a Social Enterprise in one region, would not be classified as a Social Enterprise within another and this is a shortfall of the Social Enterprise ecosystem.
Back to the beginning
The university of York has recently done a study into the roots of Social Enterprise and identified that despite the recent, 21st Century term of Social Enterprise, the idea of Social Enterprise can be traced back to the early 1600’s and possibly earlier than this. An example of this was Thomas Firmin, who after the results of the Black Plague pandemic in 1665, became the head of a philanthropic association which provided the resulting unemployed people with material so that they could continue their regular professions. A value that can be greatly appreciated given the current crisis we all face today.
(Read more on here: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/125978/1/PDF_Proof.PDF)
This brings about an argument about the categorisation of Social Enterprise which seems to ring true even internationally. There is no clear definition of what constitutes a Social Enterprise. Can even the most remote social tendencies be enough to allow a business to transcend into the Social Enterprise category or should there be a minimum impact that a business should have to allow it to hold this status? For Social Enterprise to flourish consistently throughout Europe, it may be necessary for a more coherent idea of what constitutes a Social Enterprise and what steps potential entrepreneurs can take to include themselves in this field.