Unexpected products and services delivered by social enterprises

Sep 12, 2016

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In this guest blog Lucy Findlay, Managing Director of international social enterprise accreditation body Social Enterprise Mark CIC, looks at the broad spectrum of goods and services delivered by social enterprises, some of which may surprise you.

Being something of a social enterprise ‘stalwart’ and having worked in the sector for about 15 years, I am frequently asked to explain what a social enterprise is. To help people get their heads around the concept of social enterprise, I tend to refer to the same well-known ‘mainstream’ examples, such as Age UK, Big Issue, and Eden Project.

However, I am always conscious of the vast numbers of organisations working in almost every industry, in the UK and abroad, that are operating as social enterprises. That is – they are committed to using income and profits to create benefits for people and the planet.

When many people think of social enterprise, they immediately think of small community ‘do-gooder’ organisations. In fact, many don’t realise that social enterprises do in fact operate as businesses, trading to generate income and profits. It is what they do with those profits that is the differentiator. All of our Social Enterprise Mark holders are committed to reinvesting a principal proportion of profit toward achieving social and/or environmental objectives.

I often think that many would be surprised to find out the vast and diverse range of products and services available from social enterprises – hence this blog! Using examples from our network of Social Enterprise Mark and Gold Mark accredited organisations, I have listed below a handful of the products and services that you probably didn’t realise were delivered by social enterprises.

“Many don’t realise that social enterprises operate as businesses, generating profits. It is what they do with those profits that is the differentiator.”

Hotels

It’s a service that we all use but you might not readily think of hotels and conference venues as offering much in terms of creating social value. However, take the Wesley Hotel – the only hotel to have been awarded the Social Enterprise Mark and the first ethical hotel in the UK. The Wesley is committed to sustainable operations and social responsibility, which underpins everything it does; from procurement to waste management, water usage to employment practices.

A distinct example of how the Wesley Hotel creates social value is the Hilda Porter Bursary Fund, which provides funding for marginalised students and young people in the UK and developing world.

Higher Education

Higher Education is not the first thing that pops into most people’s minds when they think of social enterprises, especially given the modern cost of studying for a degree. However, we have noticed a growing interest in social enterprise from the Higher Education sector. Five Higher Education Institutions have been awarded the Social Enterprise Mark or Social Enterprise Gold Mark in recognition of their commitment to creating positive social and economic change:

More than ever before, Higher Education Institutions are placing civic engagement, social and environmental justice and sustainable economic development at the heart of their strategic plans and student experience. Each of the above institutions has demonstrated a commitment to these values, putting sustainable and ethical business practices at the heart of their strategic direction.

Finance

With the negative press frequently associated with the banking and finance sector, it may be surprising to learn that there are a growing number of financiers in business to create benefits for people and the planet.

Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of The Big Issue is a good example. It extends the mission of The Big Issue by investing in social enterprises and charities that prevent and tackle poverty and create opportunity for people across the UK.

Charity Bank itself is the only bank to be awarded the Social Enterprise Mark. It holds this status because all its shareholders are charities or social purpose organisation and the money saved with it and generated through its loan interest charges is put straight back into supporting the social sector.

Information Technology

Again, these services may not immediately spring to mind when thinking of services provided by social enterprises, but there are organisations in the IT industry that place an emphasis on operating ethically and creating social impact.

Cosmic is one such example, an ethical digital agency specialising in website development, IT training courses, business consultancy, tech support, digital marketing and search engine optimisation. Cosmic was the very first organisation to be awarded the Social Enterprise Mark back in 2010. It has a key objective to improve digital inclusion – providing IT support for people and organisations that need it most. Cosmic is continually involved in a range of projects that achieve meaningful impact for individuals and organisations across the South West.

Office Supplies

It’s not just services that are delivered by social enterprises – there are many retail businesses that operate in competitive commercial markets, whilst maintaining a commitment to social and environmental objectives.

An interesting example of a non-conventional social enterprise is Supply Shack – a group of sub-divisions selling office supplies, furniture, promotional gifts, signs, as well as design and print services. Supply Shack has a strong social mission; their primary objective is to drive social change. It achieves this through their unique ‘giving back to the community model’, whereby it offers an extensive range of products and services at competitive rates and the majority of profits are reinvested into the community.


Doing business differently

This is just a handful of examples of the social enterprises to be discovered in surprising places. You can find many more in our online directory of accredited social enterprises.

I urge you to look out for the Social Enterprise Mark and Gold Mark badges as a sign of social enterprise credibility. All organisations that we accredit are guaranteed to be operating with the primary motivation of creating benefits for people and the planet.