Martyn Drake: caught trying to define social enterprise
I had been invited to give a talk on a non-profit master’s program, to talk about earned income, creativity and innovation.
It’s a topic close to my heart: it’s the topic I help big charities with all the time and can talk about for hours.
So, usually overconfidently, I gathered a few slides on the morning of the session, grabbed a few copies of my book to hand out, and hopped on the train from Nottingham to London.
It wasn’t until passing through Leicester, while I was thinking about how to open (always start with a fun story), that I looked at the course title for inspiration, only to see that it was called “social enterprise“.
As we all know, social enterprises are start-ups. Mission-driven, non-profit small businesses; community theatres, activity centres, cafes and more. Local…social…entrepreneurial.
I know enough to talk about it, but most of my personal experience involves developing business ideas within a large charity culture, which comes with a whole different set of rules and challenges.
Realizing that I might have missed the brief, I realized that all of my slides, insightful examples, hilarious jokes, might be completely out of place.
I wondered if I should DIY a new set, or maybe just ride it, as Luton Airport Parkway passed the train window.
I checked my notes from the call with the organizers: “40-50 people, mostly working in the charity sector, talking about labor income growth, trade, innovation, etc.”
It sounded good, but the title still confused me. Charity leaders talk to me all the time about diversifying and developing new revenue streams, becoming more business-savvy, more nimble, and, sometimes quietly, more entrepreneurial.
But none of them would ever qualify as a social enterprise. Were they wrong? Was I wrong?
As the train pulled into St Pancras, I pulled out a copy of my book and leafed through the index on the back.
Surely, I thought, I must have answered that question somewhere. I was bound to have written a genius quote or whatever about the difference between charities and social enterprises.
There were two entrances.
I had written a 200-page book on charities and business and mentioned social enterprise a grand total of twice, both times only in passing.
Feeling more uncertain than ever, I arrived at the university and grabbed one of the course leaders to quietly ask him a question: “I guess you’ve been through this before in the course, but have you a definition of what a business actually is? »
“Oh.” he replied, frowning, “It’s funny you ask.” Somehow. We have a definition based on five criteria, but I don’t think any of us are really comfortable with that.
And so, as I walked into the conference room, to meet 40 people who had spent the previous two days studying social enterprise, I realized that my trip there had become my opening story, and that story led to my opening question: “How do you define social enterprise?
An awkward silence was broken by a brave soul who replied, “We don’t really have a definition, at least not one that’s very useful.”
And it’s true: the definition was not useful because the term itself was not useful.
They wanted to do what most charities want to do: develop more sustainable and profitable earned income streams, not open a cafe.
They needed to learn purposeful innovation, trying things, failing and trying again until you find things that work, things you can do better than everyone else so you can charge a premium for it, and so do things that almost by definition build on your organization’s strengths and expertise.
Which ultimately means taking everyone in the organization with you on the journey, which is why language is so incredibly important.
Are you trying to set up a sideline to cover a dip in fundraising, or are you aiming for a business route to increase impact and earn money along the way?
Are you trying to create a social enterprise or are you trying to become a more effective and commercially sustainable charity?
Which of these statements will bring your people with you?
And so, back to class…
“OK,” I ventured, “Let’s try that.” Raise your hand if you say you work for a social enterprise. A hand went up. “Raise your hand if you say you work for a charity.” All hands went up.
“Great,” I say. “Now I know exactly where to start.” And we happily departed into the world of charitable business opportunities.
Martyn Drake is the founder of management consultancy Binley Drake Consulting