Tuesday, September 28, 2010

If we're to be a movement, we need to stop listening to our leaders...

Time and again, there's a rallying call that talks of social enterprise as a 'movement'. And that's fine, but surely the way that a movement is created, sustained and ultimately succeeds, is through it being made up of numerous small initiatives – all of which are concerned primarily with impacting on their immediate community.

But... it seems increasingly that the social enterprise policy and priority being set is for 'scaling up': making existing enterprises bigger. But surely such a 'scaling up' risks the enterprise losing touch and becoming a faceless giant such as Tesco or McDonalds – they both started out very small, rooted in their immediate communities, but as they've grown, they've become increasingly distant and unresponsive to local communities. And as they've grown, they also appear to have increasingly struggled to retain credibility and trust from their customers on ethical issues...(see Tescopoly and McLibel)

Surely we need more, not less, local small initiatives, each of which recognise their role and contribution to this wider movement, but retain their unique identity and distinctiveness in their communities. And that should be the priority for growing our movement, not force growing a handful of individual enterprises.

And where questions of scale are raised on economic terms (generating economies of scale, the ability to reach larger numbers of people), we should be looking to better collaborate between ourselves – and perhaps even look to our history for models of how this can be done: the co-operative movement grew from a vast number of small, individual, local co-operative societies who created a shared supply chain (the Co-operative Wholesale Society) to balance this tension between scale, movement and local impact.

So – if we're a movement, we should be focusing on seeing more small social enterprises emerging, not trying to find who can be grown to become the next Tesco...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Co-ops are ‘punching below their weight’...

So said Dame Pauline Green, chair of the International Co-operative Alliance, at the excellent Futures North event recently.

The co-operative economy is equal to the 10th biggest economy of any country, it employs more people than all the private multinational companies combined, it wasn’t hit by the collapse of the financial markets, its led reforms and legislation that have changed the world so that commerce is conducted for the better, it serves more than half the people on the planet, (link here
and here for more)... And I agree with her.

The default position for any enterprise in the UK is for it to be privately owned: “be your own boss, make as much money as you can/like” – the education system and the media in the UK is set up to actively discourage the co-operative business model: the heroic entrepreneur is celebrated above that of the community or those who have taken shared responsibility and supported each other as a community of entrepreneurs; (want proof? – name 3 private entrepreneurs, pretty easy; now name 3 co-operative entrepreneurs...)
As such, we’re not taken seriously – and given our size in the global economy, it’s easy to see why Pauline is as frustrated as she is.

And the solution is actually pretty straightforward: all co-ops need to do is to show off more. Take every opportunity presented to get in the media, ask to speak at local schools and colleges, infiltrate business networks, educate your customers and suppliers... these things don’t have to be expensive or time consuming.

And maybe, given that as a movement we already measure our co-operative difference and impact through the CESPIs toolkit, we should add another measure – ‘what has your co-op done this year to promote co-ops’ as a way to challenge and encourage us to take more self-responsibility (a defining co-op value), and not simply rely on others to take the initiative so that we can start to punch our weight and contribute to a greater and faster impact in the changing of our economies and communities for the better.