Beyond the rhetoric for Scottish social enterprise


The social enterprise community will gather in Glasgow for the Social Enterprise Exchange on 21 March. The trade fair, networking and policy event, is an opportunity to showcase the best of Scottish social enterprise. Duncan Thorp tells us what themes are emerging.


Scotland has an international reputation for social enterprise. Social enterprise is radical. It’s not a top-down conservative movement but a lively mix of innovative social and community business models. But for what ends? We want to create a better society based on mutual care, where everyone is equally included, where poverty for some is replaced by wealth for all, where everyone has a job, with a healthy built environment and where we live in harmony with the natural world. Really, just what most people want. Social enterprises of all types in many sectors of the economy are working on this in a practical and effective way. But without hard statistics, public awareness and business growth, our potential will be stunted. We need to take it to the next level, pushing out into the world and driving lasting change.

The first point to make is about hard statistics and data. We’re sorely lacking in this area. We need to know where we are right now and where we might be. This is in terms of robust and comprehensive economic data - size, scope, location, turnover, jobs, regeneration, volunteers - plus social data - measuring social impact in a consistent way to a common, simple, national standard. This would demonstrate how social enterprise is already making things better and how we can do more.
There’s also a big need to raise our public profile. Too often we still look inward and close off our community. We have some way to go to increase the public profile of social enterprise, so that the “brand” becomes as well known in the public and media imagination as e.g. the successful Fairtrade brand. In turn we have to be careful of those who are not social enterprises using the label as a convenient PR opportunity. Though in Scotland we have a robust definition that means every penny must be locked into the business and the social/environmental purpose.
It’s crucially about growth by convincing others to join us on the journey - either as start-ups, supporting local development or by transforming a business or charity into a social enterprise. Without this we simply cannot develop as a movement. It’s about educating young people in our schools, colleges and universities. It’s about partnering with and educating private sector SMEs and big corporates and also about bringing the public sector around to the social advantages of social enterprise. Indeed it could be said that it’s about “abolishing” sector divisions entirely and creating a new breed of delivery vehicles based on a diverse and creative social enterprise mix.
Social Enterprise Scotland is playing a big part in making all this happen, alongside our partners in social enterprise and beyond. But everyone can help to grow our social enterprises. Yes we’re making an impact and contributing to jobs and regeneration. But to have a really big impact we need more consumers and organisations to buy goods and services from their local social enterprises, whether it’s a sandwich, an artwork or a big contract to deliver a service. These are the keys to success.
Whether in Scotland, England or in other parts of the UK, whether with devolution or Scottish independence, we can continue to work together for positive change.  If we all play an active part, then we’ll create a strong and sustainable economy and a more equal and inclusive society.