Michelle who tweets as ms215 has kindly complimented me on my chairing of a session on social enterprise at the National Housing Federation's Leaders' Forum earlier today. I guess it's as true of 'a list' performers as of an 'f list' hired hand like me that we are sometimes at our best when otherwise rather morose. The platform and microphone offer an opportunity to burst briefly away from introspection and release pent up exuberance.
Not that my chairing was the main reason for the session's success. In contrast to many conference panel sessions, which tend to be lazily thrown together on the erroneous basis that three badly prepared speakers add up to something more than three badly prepared speakers, the guests on my panel were strong and the conversation both practical and engaging.
The first two contributions came respectively from Vincent Neate who is a Partner at KPMG and a social enterprise enthusiast and Emma Stewart OBE, the co-founder of the highly successful Women Like Us, which is a social enterprise finding flexible work for parents at all different skill levels.
After they had spoken I asked Vincent and Emma if they thought the definition of a social enterprise matters. Both argued for an inclusive definition which would, for example, apply the label to a privately owned firm with an explicit social remit. It was interesting then when the third speaker, Nick O'Donohoe CEO of Big Society Capital, gave a different answer.
Nick is seeking to develop new financing platforms for social enterprises using the £600 million which will be released over the next four years from dormant accounts and donations from the big four banks. He was clear that those seeking investment from the funds BSC will develop must be clear about both the way in which social purpose is embedded in their mission and operation, and about how they treat profit. This feels like an approaching fault line.
Another interesting issue concerns the motivation of social enterprise investors. Nick was confident that many people are willing to accept sub-optimal returns in exchange for the warm feeling of investing in public good, and he had an Ipsos MORI poll to back him up. He believed that the determining factor in whether or not these good intentions turn into practice is the kind of opportunities provided to putative investors.
But, as I suggested, this still leaves some hard questions. It may be that some people accept lower returns but surely not big risks at the same time. Yet many social enterprises will rely on Government contracts. These contracts are increasingly being placed on the basis of Payment By Results, and ministers are insistent that PBR really does involve a transfer of risk. What is more, the advocates of social enterprise argue that their model of governance is better suited to innovation, but innovation again is inherently risky.
In trying to square this circle it is perhaps not surprising that Nick and his colleagues at Big Society Capital are hoping next month's budget will see some steps to improve the tax treatment of social enterprise investment, and that HMT will have learnt some lessons from the largely unsuccessful community interest tax relief system. Without significant help from the Chancellor I fear the gap between the rhetoric and ambition (and potential) of social enterprise and the reality will only grow larger.
PS kind of on the subject of a lists and f lists, someone at the conference referred to 'generation Y' which is said now to have superseded the 'generation x' of the eighties and nineties. My questions is this: what comes next; who wants to be in generation z, and after that will we go back to 'generation a' just like car registration numbers?