The biggest challenge of raising awareness of social enterprise and how to overcome it

it's kinda not workingYou’re cooking Sunday lunch; the kids have been banging on about how your Yorkshire puddings are too flat, so you’re keen to make the biggest, fluffiest puds ever.

…trouble is, you use the same recipe and same method as the last ones, and inevitably, the little buggers come out like soggy pancakes.

Good intention, wrong execution.

It’s widely known that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result…

…so, it’s no wonder that awareness of the social enterprise industry isn’t growing, because we’re not learning from our mistakes and changing.

The biggest challenge we have is “raising awareness” of social enterprise as a business model; you know, making it attractive enough for more businesses to adopt.

Now, I’ve got to say, this is no disrespect to any of the social enterprise organisations that are working hard to raise the socent profile, but I think we’re missing a crucial element, which is to understand what constitutes a result.

So, when we say we want to raise awareness of social enterprise, what do we actually mean?

I’m a great believer in starting with the end in mind – so perhaps it’s that people know what a social enterprise is, or that more people buy from social enterprises, or even that more businesses buy from social enterprises. It could be that more people set up social enterprises, or that social enterprises secure more public sector contracts etc.

Decide what the tangible outcome is that we want to achieve by raising awareness of social enterprise and then put some numbers to it.

Let’s not just keep saying, “oh yeah, part of our remit is to raise the profile of social enterprise and we’ll do a bit of PR, campaigning and marketing etc.”

Let’s actively decide what we want from those activities, and look at the numbers in terms of the growth of social enterprises as an indicator as to whether there is more awareness of social enterprise.

(This is the bit where I get into the nitty gritty, so just bear with me here – it’s useful to know!)

So, 15 years ago CICs were set up as a potential legal structure for social enterprise.  We now have 20,000 of them.  As some social enterprises are charities if we look at how many charities there were 15 years ago and now there’s no real growth in numbers (167,466 in 2005 and now around 168,000).

Back in 2005, there were around 70,000 social enterprises and we’re now estimating there are around 100,000-120,000. So that’s potentially, 30,000-50,000 more social enterprises in 15 years.  Calculating that as a basic percentage (using the higher 50,000 increase) that’s 71%, or if we use an increase of 30,000 that’s 43%.

Compare that to the number of companies registered at Companies House – in 2005 there were 2.3m and in 2019 there were 4.2m.  An increase of 1.9m companies in 14 years.  As a basic percentage that’s 83% growth.

Ok, so you’d be forgiven for finding that a tad confusing. Let’s simplify it.

What these results actually show is that the sector isn’t growing as rapidly as the wider business sector, and “awareness” has probably only actually been achieved with those we’d consider “already converted”. By that I mean those who already know what social enterprise is, when the real challenge is to get the general public on board, raise awareness with business owners to increase conversion and to get the public sector wanting to work with social enterprises.

Educating and empowering the general public, public sector and business owners to understand what a social enterprise brings in terms of its social, economic and environmental impacts compared to its traditional business counterpart, and encouraging more spend and more adoption of the social enterprise model, are by far the biggest and best measurements we can use here.

So, let’s really start to understand what we want in terms of numbers.

If we look at things like the number of public sector contracts awarded to social enterprises, the numbers are actually falling – so if we’re trying to raise awareness in the public sector we’re failing at that.

Let’s get some data and put some targets for what impact we want to see and let’s be accountable as a sector for ensuring that those things happen and are delivered, because, and I repeat, IT’S NOT WORKING.

Whatever we’ve been doing for the last 15 years has not worked.

Social enterprise does not have the credibility and the brand that it should if we’ve invested money, time, resources and marketing and PR etc. over the last 15 years and we still haven’t got any further forward.

Let’s unite together on this and shine a light on the brilliance that is social enterprise!

(and afterwards, consider changing that Yorkshire pudding recipe at last)