Bristol Social Enterprise Conference

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Social enterprise may seem like a contradiction in terms for some, but is fast emerging as a growing way to go about effecting social change. The “Occupy movement” is fed up with a society based on self-interest and have made demands on governments and corporations to put the interests of society first. This question of who’s interests are preferred lie at the heart of social enterprise and are useful in defining what is meant by social enterprise.

Nowadays, every company is familiar with the rhetoric of “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR), an obligation that corporations have to feed something good back into society. The 1990’s saw the rise of CSR in almost all companies’ agendas and saw the creation of new departments within large corporations. Predicated on Adam Smith’s infamous invisible hand, these companies were and are still obliged by law to pursue the highest returns possible to maximise shareholder value. Social enterprise on the other-hand is focused on “others-interest” whereby social entrepreneurs benefit financially from improving the welfare of other members society. They share this priority with charities and philanthropy but differ in their approach as Michael Porter from Harvard Business School puts it “Businesses acting as businesses, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face.” Social entrepreneurship seeks to innovate and create new models that are financially sound to effect lasting social change.

“Fightback Britain” a recent publication by Social Enterprise UK showed that this social change is all pervasive in all economic sectors and regions of the country, particularly focusing on deprived communities; 38% of social enterprises working in the 20% of most deprived communities in the UK compared to 13% of standard businesses. It also showed social enterprise is successfully tackling social issues from within, with almost nine out ten having at least one female director and almost one in ten having a director under the age of 24. It is estimated that 14% of social enterprises are start-ups bringing greater dynamism and innovation to the economy. In comparison to the public or private sector, social enterprises are better able to balance commercial and social outcomes; work with excluded groups and reach out to local communities.

The Bristol Social Enterprise Conference last weekend focused on how students can make the transition from social consciousness into finding entrepreneurial solutions to social problems. The event brought together students with budding social entrepreneurs to discuss and debate issues and opportunities; debates explored the role of social enterprise in higher education, new inventions tackling climate change and new systems of money. As support and financial backing for young people’s ideas in social enterprise continues to grow, young people have a new and valued stake in shaping the world we live in. 

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