Recently, SEUK launched the #notinourname campaign to prevent software company Salesforce trademarking the term ‘social enterprise’. Salesforce wanted to use the term to identify businesses that use its social media software services and thus become “social” enterprises.

SEUK’s chief exec Peter Holbrook has really got his teeth into this and has been prominent in the media explaining why Saleforce’s attempt to hijack the term was so misguided and the confusion it would cause regarding genuine social enterprises.

Well, Salesforce has backed down and has unequivocally stated that it no longer intends to pursue this. In doing so it acknowledged the confusion — and potential damage — it could have caused in the social sector.

Third Sector Online covers the story here.

Make no mistake, this is a brilliant – and important – outcome for SEUK, for Holbrook personally, and for the sector and everyone who supports it.

But it’s really only the tip of the iceberg and masks a bigger problem: ‘social enterprise’ doesn’t work very well for us either. There has been a concerted effort amongst policy-makers over the past few years to loosen or relax the meaning of the term and as several interested individuals have said to me in just the past few weeks, it is now less clear than ever quite what the term means and what a social enterprise is.

I know no one has any great appetite for a new definitional debate — and really, that isn’t what is required.

But we do need something that better conveys what social enterprise is about. With the government promoting ‘joint mutual ventures’ — such as the recently externalised My Civil Service Pension (MyCSP) — as a favoured ‘mutual model’, and for-profit publicly-listed companies such as Circle rising to prominence in healthcare and donning the mantle of social enterprise in the process, it’s clear we have a problem. Let’s call it a problem not of definition but of identity.

While we fight to prevent the rather opaque term ‘social enterprise’ being trademarked as a signifier of companies that use social media, the bigger battle is to prevent the fundamental values of social enterprise being eroded.

I find myself returning to the somewhat old-fashioned and out-of-vogue term ‘not for personal profit’. Why? Because however unsatisfactory it may be — and all terms are to some degree unsatisfactory — it enjoys wider understanding than ‘social enterprise’ does. It also goes straight to the heart of the matter — it talks about money and by inference where that money does or doesn’t go. People understand that.

And against a backdrop of public spending cuts and the poor paying for the capitalists’ crisis, I personally think that not-for-personal-profit is a term whose meaning has suddenly assumed new clarity and a greater resonance…

  1. Vicki Fitzgerald Reply

    I have always struggled with the term social enterprise and worried that it can be confused with ‘just doing good things’ and corporate social responsibility. It seems anyone can call themselves a social enterprise. The Department of Health’s Right to Request Programme was a particular bugbear of mine, I was concerned that ‘being a social enterprise’ was more desirable than bringing about social change.
    Not-for-personal profit is a better term, although I have no problems with being a non-profit – people seem to understand and respect that.
    Terms like non-profit, however do not require you to bring about social change, eg: you can be a non-profit wheel-clamper if you so wish, I am increasingly using the term social justice, but not 100% sure yet. – that being said, glad the software company were forced to back down.

    • Alun Severn Reply

      “Terms like non-profit, however do not require you to bring about social change, eg: you can be a non-profit wheel-clamper if you so wish…”

      Interesting point, Vicki, and I do see exactly what you mean. It’s interesting, though, that most people don;t seem confused my the term not for profit. They rarely think it just means an unprofitable business, and they generally seem to find the idea of doing social good implicit in it.

      I agree, however, that there is a difference between “doing good things” and creating social change, but personally I defy anyone to encapsulate this in any single term that is widely understandable….

      And that’s the nub of it really: it’s about successful propaganda. Whatever we call ourselves doesn’t have to be incredibly subtle – it just has to convey a broadly correct message to as many people as possible and lend itself to endless repetition without becoming debased or confused….

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