Can Social Enterprises be Commercial?

“Oh that’d be a bit corporate, don’t you think?”  This I was recently told by a social entrepreneur, following a suggestion I thought would improve their performance.  It was not just the reply I found troubling, it was the face the respondent made.  He sort of scrunched up his face the way you might at the smell of rotten eggs.  I also felt that feeling I feel many times working in the social enterprise sector—“whose side are you on, mate?” they seem to ask.  “I thought you were one of us but when you talk like that it makes me think you never left the City/Wall Street”.

In so many ways I find a real distaste for what I would consider good corporate practice.  Another social entrepreneur is always late.  Meeting always begin 20 minutes after they were meant to.  I feel emotionally unable to just start arriving 20 minutes after the official start time, although others do—so my time is wasted and I quietly (generally) fume.  It is not that mainstream entrepreneurs are by nature any more punctual—of course not.  But when they arrive late, they apologise, and there is some recognition of the fact that this is unacceptable behaviour which needs correcting.

Another example is the mess in which I find some of the offices.  Don’t these companies have customers, I think.  What are they to make of the state of this room/office?

This is not to suggest that social entrepreneurs go to the expense of creating lavish offices which seek to impress—surely a waste of scarce resources.  But tidiness and order are not evidence of moral turpitude or corporate sell-out, just of an organisation in good operating condition.  Again, it is the attitude rather than the reality which grates; the sort of nonchalant acceptance that a mess is one quaint aspect of running a social enterprise, especially an early stage one.

Nowhere is this more harmful than when it comes to fundraising.  Where traditional entrepreneurs strive hard to hone their pitch, the social entrepreneur acts as if he/she is somewhat “put upon” but the unnecessary and tedious demands of the potential investor to get an earth-shatteringly important story into a mere few minutes.  We find this sometimes at our Social Investor Speed Dating events from social entrepreneurs.

Not all are this way, and I exaggerate (as ever) to make the point, but I contend that there is nothing harmful in operating to the best standards of commercial behaviour.  It does not undermine but rather enhances the social mission.  It does raise questions:

  • How far can a social business or enterprise go in becoming commercial before it ceases to be social?
  • Which corporate traits are best avoided?
  • When we at ClearlySo host our annual Social Business Conference, and focus on just the financial and performance issues, are we undermining the social ethos? Should we not be including sessions on furthering the social mission?
  • Is the nonchalance I mentioned above just an essential characteristic of the visionary social entrepreneur which we need to accept and celebrate?

First published in The Social Edge in June 2010

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