The rise of the Scottish social enterprise

Josh Littlejohn, right, co-founder of Social Bite, with Shelter Scotland director Graeme Brown. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Josh Littlejohn, right, co-founder of Social Bite, with Shelter Scotland director Graeme Brown. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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SOCIAL enterprise is a growing part of the wider economy, and it will mean fundamental changes in how we do things, says Duncan Thorp

Over the past few years, a lot of hard work has gone into building a bigger and stronger social enterprise community. Success has been achieved by the commitment and resilience of all social enterprises across urban and rural Scotland, by sector support bodies, public agencies and friends in the private sector. We’re all working to create more social enterprises and better social outcomes. It’s about jobs for disabled people and ex-offenders, recycling and reusing, helping homeless people, sport for youngsters, regeneration and much more.

We also want SMEs, as well as big businesses, stepping up to the mark

During this time there’s been an explosion in community interest companies (CICs), alongside the success of housing associations, many newly enterprising charities and innovative start-ups: organisations like The Melting Pot, media co-op, Bad Idea Organisation, GTS Solutions, Out of the Darkness Theatre, The Big Issue, Homes For Good and many others. Alongside exciting new enterprises on the scene like Social Bite, Scotland is leading the way in doing better business.

A core part of making progress is now to answer the basics of where we’re at in 2015. How many social enterprises are there? Where are they? What’s their turnover? How many people do they employ? These questions and more are now being addressed by the Social Enterprise Census Scotland 2015.

A consortium of sector support bodies and government agencies* have come together to support and promote this high profile and ambitious study. We’re urging all organisations in Scotland that do social enterprise trading to take part, so we can all benefit from the results. Jonathan Coburn of Social Value Lab, the organisation carrying out the research, said: “Social enterprise is beginning to take centre stage as a more ethical and responsible way of doing business in Scotland. This is a great opportunity to at last establish an official, definitive picture of the characteristics and contribution of social enterprises nationally. It will allow us to check the pulse of the sector and to monitor its health over coming years.”

In addition, Social Enterprise Scotland has been working with partner organisations on a new ten-year national social enterprise vision and strategy for Scotland. To get to this point we’ve consulted social enterprises across Scotland and fed their views and experiences into the new, draft version strategy. We’re keen on hearing from anyone with feedback about the strategy, including those working in the private and public sectors.

These powerful new initiatives to grow, launch and strengthen social enterprises of all types and sizes will continue, alongside specialist, practical business support, social finance, networking and new relationship building.

In addition to this work, we also need to increase our influence in other sectors. We must demonstrate the social and economic successes of social enterprises and the business models available. With an increasing policy emphasis – and with increasing public demand – private sector businesses need to do far more.

We want to see social enterprise as part of the mainstream economy, but we also want SMEs, as well as big businesses, stepping up to the mark. Already we’re seeing some changes, with an increasing awareness of ethical business practices and the importance of playing a positive role in local communities, as well as simply providing jobs and creating wealth. But we need to get beyond sometimes tokenistic CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). We encourage use of social enterprises in private and public sector supply chains, for example, but we also need a more fundamental shift in the way we do business as a country.

In our new UK general election manifesto, Social Enterprise Scotland emphasises that tax breaks for SMEs, fair tax collection and fair regulation are in harmony with support for a living wage, a humane welfare system, increased employee ownership and more co-operatives. We strongly support localism, where economies and decision-making genuinely happen at the most local level possible, with a variety of social enterprises at the heart of the process. (These policies will all feed into the Holyrood elections next year too.) Tackling inequality and ensuring sustainable growth simply go hand in hand.

The recent Scottish Government economic strategy supports many of the key themes of “the two mutually supportive goals of increasing competitiveness and tackling inequality”. It describes a “thriving” social enterprise community, as well as work in “creating opportunities for SMEs and third sector organisations to deliver public services.” But of course we also need to continually hold politicians to account and ensure that the welcome cross-party support for social enterprise in Scotland continues.

While social enterprise is very much a part of, and embraces, the wider economy, at the same time it’s a direct challenge to the old ways of doing business and a broken economic system. We’re pro-business because we are business. We’re inclusive, we prefer partnerships to opposition and we believe in consenting reform. But be in no doubt that social enterprise means a radical reshaping of our society and the way we do business in Scotland and beyond.

* The Social Enterprise Census Scotland 2015 is being supported or guided by: Social Enterprise Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, The Scottish Government, Big Lottery Fund Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, NESTA, SocialInvestment Scotland, Social Firms Scotland, Senscot, Co-operative Development Scotland, Social Enterprise Academy, SEUK, Glasgow Caledonian University, SURF and Firstport.

• Duncan Thorp is policy and communications officer at Social Enterprise Scotland socialenterprisescotland.org.uk
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