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How to be different without going Gaga


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Friday, 12 November 2010

How to be different without going Gaga

"He's got more awards than Lady Gaga," said Edna Robinson, introducing Martin Kinsella, chief executive of P3.

Edna, who was chairing PCC's social enterprise event earlier this week in London, went on to reassure the audience that Mr Kinsella was not about to break into Bad Romance. She needn't have bothered because it didn't ever look likely.

Mr Kinsella's company routinely makes it into the final stages of the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For contest, which it won earlier this year. Despite this distinction, both he and his fellow speakers were remarkably ordinary and down to earth.

This is just as they like it. Social enterprise has worked hard to dispel a reputation of cultivated difference. The image is fading fast of social enterprise as somehow on the fringes of "real" business, alternative with a big A, run by swivel-eyed zealots, and staffed by idealistic happy clappers and dour do-gooders.

Like any caricature there is some truth in it. Social entrepreneurs still have a habit of expressing their liberation from the grey world of conventional business in minor eccentricities of dress, and a few of them still appear to be so unnaturally happy that the use of controlled substances cannot be ruled out.

The demonisation of social enterprise by the unions can only help. The allegation is that social enterprise is at the heart of a government led plot to privatise the NHS. Social entrepreneurs are dismayed to find themselves lumped together with merchant bankers and Victorian industrialists as doyens of capitalism. The irony is hard to miss.

Having a sense of purpose that somehow sets them apart is clearly part of the success of social businesses. If all businesses were the same, you sense, some of the energy would be lost. Social enterprises set their standards in polar opposition to conventional business. Remove one of the poles and the lights would go out.

Fay Selvan, the chief executive of the BigLife Group, looks thoughtful when you ask her whether social enterprise can survive the transition from support act to headliner.

Social enterprises are used to filling in, plugging the gaps left by other services, looking after the drug users, the mentally ill, the single mothers, the deprived and anyone else regarded as responsible for society's problems.
Like their clients, social businesses have to run twice as fast to get ahead and shout twice as loudly to be heard. They clamour for a level playing field in the commissioning of services, but are also aware that having the pitch tilted against them has a strengthening effect. Darwin would probably have had something to say about it.

So when the government talks about turning the NHS into the biggest social enterprise in Europe it is not just the unions who hear alarm bells.
Fay Selvan sees social enterprise as part of the mix not the sole ingredient. She rejects as simplistic the idea that any particular organisational form can provide all the answers. There is a place for bureaucracy and plenty of space for social enterprise where bureaucracy can't or won't go.

"If you’re delivering a population based service to a large number of people, you probably need a large infrastructure to deliver that. What we do is deliver to the select few who are not getting a good service from mainstream delivery," she says.

The only thing wrong with this picture is that the NHS is too often disconnected from the social enterprises sweeping up behind it.
That might not matter in a world of infinite resources, but according to Martin Kinsella, the NHS can no longer afford to shy away from difficult decommissioning decisions.

He talks about the past decade of NHS investment as the "failure of the new money".

"There was a tolerance of duplication. Some excellent new services were put in place but the old service was never taken out. So you sometimes have in the same town two or three services serving the same need, competing for the same people and the result is chaos at great cost," he says.

Behind the familiar stereotypes, social enterprise is struggling to piece together a more sophisticated story which is about being different where it matters but not for its own sake, about being on the margins where people are marginalised, but about being mainstream when it comes to working with existing institutions to get the commissioning balance right.

The psychologist and social entrepreneur Dr David Johnson is a big fan of creativity. But like all strong ingredients, it should be used sparingly. "A lot of creative people like to think outside of the box," he says. "But the reality is that 99% of people live inside the box."

Like his colleagues in social business, Johnson worries that we will shoehorn providers of health and social care into social enterprise in the mistaken belief that all we need to solve the problems of the NHS is new organisational forms. "Changing organisations is easy. Attitudes and culture are much harder to change," he says.

As the first social entrepreneurs celebrate the appearance of grey hair, their next challenge is to help the rest of us manage our expectations.