The Magnificent Seven: Big businesses buy social

Businesses including Johnson & Johnson and PwC are aiming to spend £1bn with social enterprises by 2020 as part of the Buy Social Corporate Challenge, which launched at Number 11, Downing Street this week. Deputy CEO of Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) Nick Temple explains all.

On Monday, we launched the Buy Social Corporate Challenge with seven companies:  Interserve, Johnson & Johnson, PwC, RBS Group, Santander, Wates and Zurich. The challenge has a simple aim: to achieve £1bn spent with social enterprises by 2020. It is the latest and most ambitious part of our Buy Social campaign. This originated from our members, because when we asked them what they most wanted, they said 'customers'. And while those customers include the general public and the public sector, over 50% of social enterprises now do business with the private sector too. So here's a few thoughts on the challenge and what it means:

We know £1bn is ambitious

Our work has been inspired by the Billion Dollar Roundtable in the US, and the levels of associated ambition. Achieving the collective target won't be easy, but should drive different behaviours on the way – these will be required if we are to achieve what we have all set out. We are being deliberately ambitious.

We'll need more companies

The founding (magnificent) seven have significant spend and supply chains, but we hope they will be joined by others from across a range of industries and sectors. The power is in the collective, and the more that join, the more powerful it will be. We can also then support them as peers to share experience, overcome challenges and develop common frameworks.

We need social enterprises to step up

To achieve these kind of spend levels, we will need what I've described to colleagues as a 'full court press'. For those who don't like basketball, it basically means throwing everything at something and involving everyone in a collective effort. We will need small discretionary spend with social enterprises and we will equally need significant strategic deals with social enterprises. And everything in between.

Rob Wilson, Claire Dove and Peter Holbrook_Social Enterprise UK

Peter Holbrook (CEO, SEUK), Minister for Civil Society Rob Wilson and Claire Dove (chair, SEUK) at No. 11, Downing St

We may create new markets and opportunities

In mapping the supply chains of several companies (rather than one or two individually), we anticipate being able to identify market opportunities for social enterprises: new areas where existing social enterprises might diversify to meet demand, or where new social enterprises might be established. Social investors may have a role here too.

We know we need to make it easier to find social enterprises

We have got better at brokerage, and we are investing in improving the Buy Social Directory but there is more to do. We anticipate being heavily directly involved to start with, but social enterprises joining as members or to the directory helps us build up the fullest possible database. And create opportunities for as many social enterprises as possible.

We think this is also about awareness

Obviously the focus of this initiative is on spending to increase social impact. But working with such large companies also has opportunities in increasing awareness of social enterprise – if they have a million employees between them, that's a million potential people to hear about this initiative and about social enterprise.

We need to keep a focus on social value

Clearly, a spend target is not the ultimate aim: we are encouraging more spending with social enterprises because we believe they help create more social value as a result: through changing people's lives, regenerating communities and improving the environment. Working with the companies, we will seek to do some joint work on the changecreated by the collective spend: all those involved are focused on this.

We know it's a long-term initiative

It is common these days for someone to say that something is a 'journey', and this is no different. Of course, 'journey' is often just code for 'it's going to take a lot longer than you think and be a lot harder than you imagined'. So we are under no illusions on the work of the next five years: after all, it's taken us four years to get to this point, working with pioneers like Wates and Johnson & Johnson. 

This is a milestone and something to be recognised, but it's only a platform to achieve more – the work very much starts here.


Photo credit: Social Enterprise UK