Two weeks ago, we attended a ceremony at the Ernst & Young buildings, overlooking Tower Bridge. We were there to accept our Future 100 Award, making Open Society one of the top 100 social enterprises in the Uk, in the eyes of the organisers – Striding Out.
The organisations present spanned education and healthcare, sports outreach and environmentally friendly media. Regions across the Uk were well represented – what each social enterprise present had in common was a positive social impact combined with a sustainable and viable business model – this was the judging criteria. The fact that Ernst & Young considers our business model viable is very encouraging, and testament to several recycling bins full of previous versions.
The first version over 2 years ago was titled ‘Broedplattz’ and was carried from place to place in a battered suitcase on the back of an old motorbike. The second, entitled ‘The Union’, was written from the depths of a community warehouse in Brooklyn, situated above the head quarters of a New York motorcycle gang. You get the picture. Several versions, later the fact that one of Ernst & Young’s directors gave it the thumbs up is either a glowing testimony to our perseverance and development, or a terrifying example of how and why our economy now sits in the doldrums. We’re going with the former.
The work of Ernst & Young in the area of social enterprise is exemplary, and hopefully will spread across the financial sector. The danger with CSR budgets and reporting is that too often companies tend to want short-term, easily tangible case studies – sponsoring disadvantaged young people to make a skateboarding video or record a rap album, for example. Working with Striding Out, Ernst & Young are investing in the people who are setting up organisations dedicated to helping hundreds of young people, hundreds of the elderly, people who can make genuine contributions to the future of their local communities. Without this help and financial support, the social enterprise sector will go the same way as ‘The big society’.
As nice as awards are, what I feel the social enterprise sector needs more than anything, is money. Since starting Open Society, we have not been able to secure any funding, from a variety of sources. The social need for an organisation that helps young people develop skills and find work is greater than ever, and we have been fortunate to work with great organisations like 3Space and Striding Out who offer free help and training to social enterprises. But, with funding our growth and social impact could have been far greater. To expect young people to be able to forge their own sector that helps people and makes it’s own money is an impossible idea – 95% of socent startups are going to require funding, but where are they going to get it?
There is plenty of advice out there, plenty of talent and plenty of skills training. What the sector needs is investment. Sadly the ‘Big Society Bank’ – promising hundreds of millions to the socent sector siphoned from dormant back accounts – was bled dry by the second phase of the recession, and the government hasn’t yet come up with a alternative. Startup Britan, which just pulls together lots of things that were already widely available online, does not count.
So it falls to companies like Ernst & Young, organisations like Striding Out and the individuals that filled the hall overlooking the river two weeks ago to lead for now. The recognition those people received will provide a huge confidence boost, but it must be followed with funding and support – loans, tax incentives, even benefits – for those who are taking the time, effort and financial risk to start something in the social enterprise sector. Without that, all the great work people have done in this area over the last 10 years will exist without the legacy it deserves.