Are social enterprises creating white elephants?

Legend has it that the King of Siam once gave rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs.

These days, the term ‘white elephant’ more often refers to an extravagant but useless gift that cannot be easily disposed of or serves little purpose, or perhaps a beautiful but functionless building that nobody visits….

A few weeks ago, I spoke at a conference for social enterprise organisations. I work in local government, so I talked about how commissioners of public services are increasingly looking for the ‘social value’ which a business in the social economy might bring. I was followed by three speakers from the private sector, all of whom had committed to ‘buy social’ and include social enterprises in their supply chains.

A group of local social enterprises spoke about their good work and the social impact that they were creating through activities ranging from support for people with mental health problems, disabled young people being able to visit the beach, to training for families to eat healthily and take more exercise.

All valuable and necessary goals in local communities.

After the conference, one of my private sector colleagues confided in me that he was struggling to purchase from social enterprises because they just didn’t sell the things that his company needed to buy…

And I thought about my own experience of public sector commissioning and how few of our contracts are placed directly with social enterprises (despite my employer having put a great deal of effort into trying to do so).

So, what is going wrong? Why are some social enterprises more successful than others?

Although the private and public sectors often want to buy goods and services from organisations with a social purpose, perhaps they can’t directly buy the social value or social impact that those organisations are keen to sell? Buyers want to purchase a product and get the social value ‘added’?

Maybe the social enterprises that ARE successful have found a way to sell products which by their very nature create social impact? Maybe they understand their market as well as their social value?

NMC Design and Print is an enterprise linked to the Neuro Muscular Centre in Winsford, Cheshire. NMC has used its social accounting http://www.nmcentre.com/nmc/about-us/social-accounts/ to engage with its market and create a commercially successful social enterprise providing a Design and Print service run by, and employing, designers with muscular dystrophy.

The products that they are selling include graphic design, other digital services and printing. The ‘social value’ comes with the fact that people with muscular dystrophy, who would otherwise struggle to find employment, provide these services.

NMC knows and engages with its market, understands its social value and has expanded rapidly.

See Detail is a company that makes the best use of the skills of the staff to provide services that are exceptional and rewarding for everyone.  In addition, they provide autism awareness training to the companies and organisations that they work with, and finally they are lifting people out of the, so-called benefits trap, and making a real contribution to society both in terms of wealth generation and in innovation and creativity.  See Detail’s main business is software testing  which people on the autistic spectrum are ideally suited.

Both NMC Design and Print and See Detail have managed to combine their business model and their social impact to create a commercially successful social enterprise. They have ‘packaged’ their social value for their own specific market. Sadly, many ‘social enterprises’ that I come across have not managed to do that.

Instead, social value dominates their purpose. This might be too specific or on too small a scale to be beneficial to prospective customers and the ‘enterprise’ ceases to be viable. A ‘beast’ is created which is valuable to a discrete group and often outwardly impressive but which is impossible to sustain and not really wanted by those with the means to pay for it.

So, my ‘take-away’ messages to social enterprises everywhere are;

  • don’t create white elephants, when dull looking, grey beasts are often stronger and more successful;
  • use tools like social accounting and audit to engage with your market, and
  • be very careful in the presence of Kings….

Anne Lythgoe

SAN Vice- Chair

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