Here's an article I wrote earlier this week for my day job as editor of BusinessZone.co.uk:
The three-year government-funded Social Enterprise Ambassadors programme, set up to promote social enterprise with high profile entrepreneurs, came to an end last week. BusinessZone.co.uk editor Dan Martin spoke to the programme's manager Pauline Milligan to find out what it did for social enterprise in England.
If the recession has done one thing, it has increased the interest in doing business for social or environmental reasons rather than solely to make pots of cash. Although social enterprises, the modern, collective term for businesses which put all or the majority of their profits into a social cause, are nothing new, high profile companies like Jamie Oliver's Fifteen and Divine Chocolate and Cafe Direct, two of the UK's biggest Fairtrade companies, have helped drive up interest among the general public and aspiring entrepreneurs.
One way the last government attempted to boost that interest was through its funding of the Social Enterprise Ambassadors programme, an initiative which bought on board 33 social entrepreneurs who toured England trumpeting the benefits of the social enterprise model. Among those who got involved were Tim Campbell, winner of the first series of The Apprentice and John Bird, co-founder of The Big Issue.
The programme, which cost a total of £860,000 and was run by the Social Enterprise Coalition, came to an end last week with a celebration event filled with tears and hugging. But why has it ended, what has it achieved and what's ahead for how social enterprise is promoted in the UK?
Programme manager Pauline Milligan says the programme was always only going to last three years and participants decided not to push the new government into extending the initiative. "We felt it was going to be a risk to watch and see whether the government would continue funding and thought it was better to celebrate the achievements of the programme and the legacy which will continue in many ways."
When asked what Milligan considers are the scheme's greatest achievements, a deal with telecoms company O2 is top of the list. "The company has launched new packages and a whole host of other activities to support social enterprise whether that be communications work, promoting social enterprise to business customers or looking at introducing a new award for social enterprise," she says. "O2 is promoting and supporting the social enterprise sector in a way that hasn't been possible before using the power of a huge, powerhouse brand."
Milligan is also proud of the programme's work in public services, particularly with the National Offender Management Service through which ambassadors were matched with senior civil servants at a 'speed dating' event who then spent time within social enterprises learning how former offenders can be helped back into work. "The social enterprise concept can be quite hard to grasp but it is brought to life through individual stories," Milligan explains. "It has been hugely effective in helping civil servants to 'get it'. As a result, there are lots of pilot schemes working with offenders around the country."
Responding to criticism
The programme hasn't been without its critics however. In 2008, some of the ambassadors attacked the programme for lacking direction and earlier this year, social entrepreneur Ben Metz wrote an article for The Guardian in which he said the programme "makes a lot of noise and wastes a lot of taxpayers' money in looking good and talking about themselves while effecting no legislative or policy change whatsoever".
Milligan accepts some of the criticism and said when she joined in early 2009, it was one of the first areas she focused on. Three taskforces, she claimed, tackled the direction problems and bought "real change".
When it comes to altering government policy, Milligan claims the programme wasn't set up with the aim of "changing laws" but says it has "influenced the debate and helped civil servants and ministers understand what social enterprise is all about".
She also claims one major success with the programme’s role in calling for added value to be taken into account when public sector spending decisions are made and contracts are being awarded. Chris White MP is currently tabling a private members bill calling for a greater awareness of social enterprises during the procurement process. "This was not solely down to the ambassadors but we had lots of meetings with key civil servants, ministers and the media in order to influence the outcome", Milligan says.
Educating young people about business is another area Milligan is keen to stress the programme's success, in particularly through the recent introduction of social enterprise as an area of education taught by Young Enterprise, which works with 30,000 children and students in schools, colleges and universities.
Young Enterprise hit the headlines recently when Dragons' Den judge and National Enterprise Academy founder Peter Jones criticised the organisation for "putting good money after bad". Milligan says that is an argument by which she is "not impressed" adding: "I've met many of the young people who've taken part in Young Enterprise and they're very inspiring. They've set up profitable businesses and are doing some fantastic stuff so it's really dismissive of Peter Jones to disregard the organisation in the way he did."
One of the dragon's arguments is that enterprise education needs to be more coordinated and he has called for his National Enterprise Academy curriculum, currently running in three colleges, to be rolled out nationwide.
But Milligan says having one single scheme in place isn't necessarily a good thing. "There are lots of organisations working in the space and it's important they join up but I also believe there are different ways to do things," she says. "I wouldn't want to see a monopoly of one programme being used against others which have got a proven track record."
So how does Milligan believe the public perception of social enterprise has developed during the three years the programme has existed?
"Things are shifting but there's still a long way to go," she says. "When I joined in 2009, we started to look at how to make it more focused and one of the things I quickly realised was that going out and trying to raise awareness among the general public was not the right thing to do.
"What we needed to do was get to key decision makers and organisations. Once we'd converted some of those, we could then move onto the general public. Through schemes like the Social Enterprise Mark and the deal with O2, the concept of social enterprise is starting to be taken out to a bigger audience."
In terms of how the legacy of the programme will continue, Milligan says many initiatives "will continue" although without the coordinated format of a national programme. The Social Enterprise Coalition also plans to stay in touch with the ambassadors and all have committed to open the doors of their social enterprises to the public on Social Enterprise Day 2010 in November during Global Entrepreneurship Week.
But it's not just the programme that has come to an end; so has Pauline Milligan's job. When asked what she plans to do in the future, she reveals initially she is taking a break and spending two weeks in Vietnam "to have a rest and reflect". But whatever happens, social enterprise will likely stay a part of Milligan's life.
"I'm keen to stay within social change and business. I don't know whether that'll be starting my own, going freelance, working for a social enterprise or another business. I'm keeping an open mind but I certainly believe business is the way to do it."