Charity and enterprise

Dictionary - sThe barriers we build through language…

Language barriers don’t just exist between languages, they exist within languages as well. I tripped over one such example while wandering across London last week.

I’d been invited to do a guest lecture for a charity management MSc course, to talk about earned income, creativity, and innovation. So, last Friday, I pulled a few slides together, grabbed some copies of my book to hand out if anyone wanted one, and hopped on the train from Nottingham to London.

It was only as we passed through Leicester, when I was thinking about how to open (always start with a funny story), that I looked back at the course title to gain some inspiration, only to see that the module was actually called “Social Enterprise”.

As we all know, social enterprises are start-ups. Small, mission-led, non-profit businesses; community theatres, activity centres, cafés and the like. Local… social… entrepreneurial.

I know enough to talk about them, but most of my non-profit clients are pretty big, and there’s a world of difference between developing commercial ideas and entrepreneurial thinking within a large-charity culture, and setting up a start-up, from scratch, on a shoestring.

It appeared I might have missed the brief, and it slowly dawned on me that pretty much all of my insightful slides, wonderful examples, not to mention hilarious jokes, might just be completely irrelevant. I wondered if I should cobble a new set together, or maybe just wing it, as Luton Airport Parkway flashed past the train window.

I checked back on my notes from the call with the organisers: “40-50 people, most of them working in the charity sector, to talk about earned income and trading, innovation etc.”

Reassuringly, even if what I’d prepared wasn’t quite on-topic for the course, it would definitely be useful for the audience. I just needed to link it to the concept of Social Enterprise. I had an idea.

As the train pulled into St Pancras, I pulled out a copy of my book and flicked through the index at the back. I was bound to have written some genius quotes about social enterprise. Surely there would be a good link in there somewhere.

There were two entries.

I had written a 200-page book on charities and commerce and mentioned social enterprise a grand total of twice. As I walked out of the station into London’s streets, I realised the reason I’d avoided using the term: it’s just so ambiguous.

Half of the organisations I work with could probably, technically, be described as social enterprises, but it’s not a term they’d ever use about themselves. They all carry the same preconceptions as me.

Feeling more uncertain than ever, I arrived at the university and grabbed one of the course leaders to quietly ask a question: “I’m guessing you’ve been through this in the course already, but do you have a definition of what a social enterprise actually is?”

“Ah.” he replied, furrowing his brow, “Funny you should ask. Kind of. We have a definition based on five criteria, but I don’t think any of us is really comfortable with it.”

And so, as I walked into the lecture room, to meet 40 people who’d spent the previous two days studying Social Enterprise, I realised that my journey down there had become my opening story, and that story led into my opening question: “How do you define Social Enterprise?”

An awkward silence was broken by one brave soul answering: “We don’t really have a definition, at least not one that’s very helpful.”

I’ve often spoken about how words like “sales”, “marketing”, and “profit”, can make people within charities uncomfortable, but more importantly, can become a barrier that stops them engaging with the opportunities they represent. Having now stumbled over the barrier myself, it looks like I’ll have to add “Social Enterprise” to that list.

“OK, let’s try this. Hands up if you’d say you work for a social enterprise.” I asked. One hand went up. “Hands up if you’d say you work for a charity.” All the hands went up.

“Brilliant,” I said, “Now I know exactly what to talk about.”

And it felt like I’d arrived just where I needed to be.

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