What are the future scenarios for social enterprise?

What are the future scenarios for social enterprise?


Charles Leadbeater

August 2007


Charles Leadbeater is an independent writer and adviser on innovation to governments, companies and cities. He is the author of The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur, one of the first British accounts of social entrepreneurship, published in 1997. He has also written extensively on innovation in the public and private sectors. www.charlesleadbeater.net



This short paper will examine the conditions for the growth of social enterprise through a set of outline scenarios. The aim is to inform both policy-making and the wider debate about social enterprise: what its potential might be and how that potential can be realised in different settings.


The starting point is this (widely used and adapted) diagram for understanding the position of social enterprise. Social enterprise sits at the meeting point of these other sectors. It is not a stand alone sector. We can only understand its potential for growth through its interaction with these other sectors: i.e. the way it changes and in a sense infiltrates established sectors of activity.


The paper’s argument is that social enterprise will grow through taking a larger share of the activities of these other sectors. That forms the framework for the scenarios. The scenarios will take into account trajectories for demographics, technology, values and market competition that will shape the context in which social enterprise operates.


The potential for social enterprise will depend on the way its unique strengths – to generate trust, to engage with users, to operate at low cost, to identify emerging needs – interact with the changing context.



Scenario 1: socialisation of business


Social enterprise will create new ways to do business.


Social enterprise is often defined as finding business and market based solutions to systemic social issues, such as social exclusion, long-term unemployment and sustainability. A social enterprise puts a higher premium on its social mission and its social returns which moderate the way it runs its business.


Factors at play in this scenario include changing consumer perceptions of business (continued rise of ethical consumption); changing attitudes of workers and staff who seek more responsible business; campaigns by NGOs and pressure from government; possible new reporting regimes; corporate social responsibility as a feature of competition; more pervasive, transparent, open and critical media. Other pressures may include attitudes in financial markets and investors’ perceptions of reputational risks.


One way social enterprise could grow is through a further socialisation of business culture, governance, norms and accountability. More mainstream businesses may try to model themselves as social enterprises in the way they operate and hold themselves to account. The spread of fair trade from a marginal campaign into the business mainstream might be a good example. Corporate approaches to ‘carbon neutral’ business might provide another example.


Entrepreneurial social enterprises often open up markets or ways of doing business that mainstream businesses do not see, in part because social enterprises are driven to innovate in marginal markets even when there is little profit to be made. Social enterprises could be an important source of disruptive innovation, for example in the environmental services and technology sector.


Finally changing attitudes among young entrepreneurs who seem to favour a new mix of making money and social purpose could produce a new wave of social start-ups: commercial businesses with a stronger sense of social mission at their heart, along the lines of Innocent drinks.


Policy could play several roles in furthering the socialisation of mainstream business through: helping open up new ethical markets; regulation, for example on environmental standards; changes to corporate governance towards more social forms of accountability.



Scenario 2: socialising public services


The socialisation of the state and public services.


The UK social enterprise sector is heavily dependent upon state funding and contracting out, especially in social care and local government services. In some respects the social enterprise sector has become a creature of public funding and an alternative to in-house public services.


The main forces behind this scenario will be: the growth of more open markets in public services, for example through individual budgets; decentralisation to local government and communities; innovation to tackle emerging social challenges.


A good example of the first is the potential for the voluntary and social enterprise sector to play a much larger role in provision of social care as individual budgets come to play a larger role.


As public services allow more choice and personalization, so social enterprises could play a larger role as service providers, brokers and navigators. If individual budgets spread into health and education then it’s likely there will be growth in public social enterprises in these sectors as well.


Moves towards more decentralisation and community ownership of assets could allow new growth of local mutuals, for example owning local assets such as parks. Environmental policy might create new social carbon trusts to manage local carbon budgets.


Another possibility is growth of social enterprises around public priorities such as community safety and long term health conditions.



Scenario 3: politics – social enterprise and social movements


Social enterprises often emerge as the business expression of a social campaign or movement addressing a social need.


The original cooperatives and mutuals emerged alongside the growth of trade unions and the Labour Party. Movements around child care, mental health and learning disabilities for example have produced both campaigns to change legislation but also new services for client groups.


One way to plot the future of social enterprise is to examine the possible development of the social movements and campaigns that could spawn them.


Changes in technology, the growth of Web 2.0, are creating a new information and media backbone for democracy, allowing many more people to have their say in debates but also to mobilise one another in local action. Web 2.0 allows campaigns to be ultra local, organised around specific communities of interest and also global in scope. New social movements and campaigns may spawn social enterprises at similar scales. Some of these are likely to adopt Web 2.0 business models themselves.



Scenario 4: social enterprise and new forms of volunteerism


Social enterprises are sometimes based on a charity or a form of volunteering, for example a charity’s commercial arm.


However Web 2.0 has also given rise to growth of a new voluntary/social economy, the prime example of which is probably Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia created largely by volunteers. Open source software – also often created by volunteers – is another example. In the Netherlands a new social network for elder care has been created in which people in different parts of the country agree to keep an eye on their relatives. Time Banks are another model for organised volunteering.



This is part of an Office of the Third Sector initiative asking five leading thinkers to set out their ideas on the future of social enterprise. The full document is downloadable her as a pdf.