CIC Association

Serving Community Enterprise

Guest Blog - The ClearlySo Social Business Conference 2011

The social business and enterprise arena is often described as the fastest growing sector of the economy. It’s a nice thought if true, but just how big is it? According to government figures there are around 62,000 companies which could be described as social businesses or social enterprises in the UK. This is the figure that’s been routinely quoted for around two years. It is an impressive enough figure in itself, but the real number could be far higher.

Coming up on 11th of October, the ClearlySo Social Business Conference will attempt to illustrate just how high. Under the theme ‘all shapes and sizes’ it aims to provide a vivid illustration of the sheer diversity of activity taking place in this arena.

Of course the true size of the sector depends greatly on your definition. At ClearlySo we do take a broad approach as you can see on our definitions page. To us a social enterprise is anything which mixes social and business objectives, but places a clear emphasis on the former. Profits are either distributed to further its social impact or develop the business.

We also include social businesses. These operate on both a social and commercial standpoint, but in this case social aims need not necessarily be the primary objective. Instead we run what we call a test of equivalence. Is there a correlation between the commercial and social arms of the business. In other words, would an investment into a company increase its social impact?

It is purposefully a broad description and is similar in many ways to a study this time last year by Delta Economics and IFF Research. This report estimated that the UK could house more than 230,000 ‘hidden social enterprises’. It is far from an exact figure, but it does lend support to the notion of a far larger and more diverse sector than previously imagined.

So, in our vision, social business and enterprise is a broad church, one that incorporates everything from local organisations to large multinational companies. Our directory provides a vivid illustration. Here you’ll find firms such as Ben & Jerry’s sitting alongside small local enterprises such as CleanStream Carpets. Featured back in January, this small enterprise is delivering enormous environmental and employment benefits within the Rhondda Valley. In terms of size and reach it is as different from Ben & Jerry’s as night from day. However, both are united in their commitment to make the world a better place.

For some, this description might seem a little too broad. The idea of social businesses returning small dividends has certainly caused considerable controversy in the past. To many, the notion of a social business returning profits to shareholders seems counter intuitive to the principals of our sector. However to exclude those businesses would be to turn our back on organisations which are, in their own way, delivering real and lasting benefits. If some of its investors or founders make a little money into the bargain, why begrudge them that?

It would also diminish the true scope and potential of the sector. One of the major strengths of the ClearlySo Social Business Conference has been its capacity for displaying the social business and enterprise sector at its best. Time and again last year conference visitors from outside the sector expressed themselves blown away by the energy, imagination and professionalism on display. Here they saw a sector in the full force of growth, one with the talent to develop and the potential to attract substantial levels of private sector investment. 

For this reason, this year’s conference is set to be something of a celebration of the social business and enterprise sector. It will aim to demonstrate just how large and diverse it has become and the real benefits it can bring to society.


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