In late April I was a speaker on ‘how can corporate directors help nurture social enterprises?’ at a round table hosted by over one hundred members of Thailand’s Institute of Directors. This group includes many of Thailand’s most senior business leaders. I took part in the discussion together with Bordin Unakul, Senior Executive Vice President from the Stock Exchange of Thailand, and Marcus Winsley, Director, Trade and Investment, British Embassy Bangkok.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become an important part of the business scene here in recent years but it is probably fair to say that – as is the case in many countries – it is not always as effective as it could be. CSR is often more concerned with the feel-good factor, photo opportunities and marketing than long-term or sustainable impact. That is not to say that a feel-good factor and photo opportunities are bad in themselves, simply that they don’t go as far as they could. I argued that supporting social enterprises can be a better use of their resources.
I am a strong believer that the best social enterprises are a bottom-up response by individual social entrepreneurs to tangible problems and challenges which particular social groups or communities face on a daily basis. Governments and big corporates are often too removed to develop an innovative approach but they can in their different ways help nurture social enterprises. What government can and should do and not do is another debate. This round-table was about the roles of corporates.
I started off with a few oft-repeated facts about the social enterprise sector in the UK – there are over 70,000 social enterprises, they create over one million jobs and contribute 24 billion pounds to the UK economy. One in three start-ups in the UK are social enterprises. Social enterprises are rooted in the UK’s DNA, whether you think about its free enterprise culture, the tradition of charity for good social causes, the 19th century cooperative tradition and a certain ‘don’t wait for government to fix it’ streak in UK culture. I stressed the huge range of social enterprises in the UK to move beyond the oft repeated example of Jamie Oliver’s fifteen restaurant (www.fifteen.net), the Big Issue and community cafes. They include many such examples, of course, but also a whole gamut of social and healthcare service providers, facility management services, farms, hubs for makers, theatre companies, renewable energy providers and even factories. Some people often get hung up on their legal format and definition. Keeping it really simple, they are businesses which tackle social or economic problems. Like any business they have to make a ‘profit’ but the profit is reinvested in the ‘cause’. Social enterprises in UK are registered in many different ways.
So how can corporates support them?
1. Buy social
Corporates can include social enterprises in their supply chain. Social Enterprise UK together with the Cabinet Office and Business in the Community recently launched a campaign with a number of leading UK and international companies, encouraging business to spend one billion pounds with social enterprises by 2020. You can see more at http://socialenterprise.org.uk/challenge. While hardly a business, the UK Houses of Parliament were a pioneer institution in sourcing products and services from social enterprises. This gives opportunities to small social enterprises, gives them profile and, crucially, encourages social enterprises to be efficient and high performing. You might to go fifteen once because you like the idea and think it’s a good thing, but you’ll only return for good food, service and ambience. Likewise, big corporates don’t want weak links in their supply chains. They will pay a premium for quality and social enterprises have to provide it.
2. Mentoring, volunteering
Big corporates have a key resource that developing social enterprises often lack and cannot afford – namely expertise in a range of professional areas, be it finance, legal, marketing, strategy, evaluation or HR. By allowing managers to spend some time each month pro-bono supporting a social enterprise with their time and expertise, companies can offer tremendous help. Many UK and multinational companies in the UK have established schemes. There is benefit to the corporates too because it is professionally rewarding for their managers, they develop soft skills, often working with people from different backgrounds. We often see statistics and reports that millennials are particularly motivated by ‘doing good’ and making a longer term difference. Exciting them can boost staff retention.
3. Physical and virtual hubs
Closely related to number 2 above, is the provision of physical or virtual collaboration spaces for social entrepreneurs and corporate staff to meet, discuss, work and interact. PWC has created a network of Centres for Social Impact (CSIs) – for more go to http://firestation.pwc.co.uk. This can be more challenging in a large country with a big rural population such as Thailand, but arguably even more important
Social enterprises will invariably require some funding at some stage, whether it is at start-up or when they wish to scale up. Funding comes in various forms. It can be a seed fund grant on application. It can be equity investments. It can be funding from awards, which have the additional benefit of raising the profile of the sector. Take a look at this link to see what Unilever is doing. www.unilever.com/sustainable-living/join-in/Young-Entrepreneur-Awards-2016. Another growing way is through social impact bonds, which is particularly relevant for finance institutions and investors. British Council Thailand was delighted last year to arrange the visit of Sir Ronald Cohen from the G8 taskforce and the doyen of social impact investing to speak to policy makers about the subject.
So in summary, these are four clear ways which company directors and their companies in Thailand can support the growing social enterprise sector and contribute more to social and economic development in Thailand than they ever could through CSR programmes. If they play it carefully, there could still be all those photo opportunities too!
I finished by highlighting some of our British Council successes in social enterprise in Thailand at shaping proposed new legislation, in linking universities in the two countries to look at introducing social enterprise degrees here and our current business investment readiness programme with the craft sector across Thailand. I expressed our willingness to continue to play a role in this important and developing conversation.
22 June 2016