Social enterprise and small is beautiful

I gave a very unsatisfactory answer in a radio interview recently about social enterprise. Having had a lot more experience asking the questions than answering them in media exchanges, it’s an uncommon feeling to be on the other side of the mic.

The radio podcasts are being put togther by Nick Patrick for the University of Herts and are about the many and varied wonders of heritage in promoting wellbeing. Nick told me I had a “special interest” in social enterprise – he’d done his homework – and why was this?

I said something about soc ents being very much “of the moment”, combining social and/or environmental purpose with the entrepreneurial nous that is needed to see where there is some opportunity to earn income from commercial activity. In a time of constricted public funding that goes a long way to helping people with ideas put them into action and keep them going.

But that’s all a bit reactive, even defensive – as if social enterprise is no more than a necessary response in straitened tmes. There is a more positive, invigorating point that I should have made – which is about how we want, not just problems solved, but opportunities seized. And by whom? By big players – whether of the State or the corporate world? Or by a myriad of small enterprises and endeavours? My tendency is to support  the small. Not (just) out of backing the underdog, but for good, solid reasons of efficacy. Big ideas – as Adam Lent is busy explaining – aren’t working so well any more. Power is better shared, lots of small ideas gives us more diversity and choice: it’s less risky, as we’re less reliant on big players – State or corporate – doing the right thing.

And small is more practical and possible in a way that perhaps it wasn’t in the mid 20th Century when communication was difficult, and people’s creativity thwarted by social structures of deference and curtailed education. Putting our faith in big organisations to sort things out  requires too much faith in those bureaucracies and asks us to place too much trust that our best interests will be served. Meanwhile, the chance to work in small organisations, whether self-employed or in a business you’ve helped to create, gives people more freedom.  Small organisations that aren’t bent on growth find it easier to keep a sense of purpose.

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