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On 22 September 2012 - 4:23pm

Do you run a social enterprise? Do you buy stuff from other social enterprises? If not, why not? These are the essential questions being asked by Social Enterprise UK(SEUK)’s new campaign Buy Social.

Having successfully convinced a corporate cloud computing giant to drop a major chunk of its marketing strategy, the umbrella body’s next trick is apparently to attempt to convince some people to do something that you might imagine they would’ve been doing anyway.

SEUK’s research shows that 1 in 4 social enterprises don’t make any regular purchases from other social enterprises at all and while, on the plus side 70% of social enterprises have at least one other social enterprise in their supply chain, only 13% said that the majority of their suppliers are social enterprises.

In response, SEUK is putting its money where its mouth is. Not only have they been buying stuff from social enterprises themselves, they’ve also posted a list of recent social enterprise purchases from their staff team. The overall goal of the campaign is to see 500 new deals done between social enterprises by Social Enterprise Day 2013 – as Social Enterprise Day is in November, that’s just over a year away.

The Buy Social campaign is itself a social enterprise partnership between SEUK and our friends at communications agency, Poached Creative, who have developed the message and the campaign materials. Poached Creative’s director, Jess Smith, has written a blog post about what her company buys from, and sells to, other social enterprises (including us at Social Spider CIC).

I think the campaign’s a really good idea. It got a clear, positive focus and is a good way of harnessing the collective energy of the social enterprise movement – particularly via social media – in a way that should actually result in stuff being sold. At Social Spider CIC, we already use social enterprise suppliers where we can including The Co-Operative Bank, The Phone Co-op and Intentionality, who have been helping us develop our social impact measurement.

I also think the campaign raises a couple of questions. One is around SEUK’s research findings on the barriers that prevented respondents buying from social enterprises: “When asked what barriers prevented social enterprises buying from others, 35% reported that other social enterprises don’t promote or market themselves to potential social buyers, and 29% had never been able to find social enterprises for the services or products they’ve needed. Very few said that social enterprises couldn’t compete on quality (6%) or price (6%) with other suppliers.

Anecdotally, the first two points are seem reasonable – and the campaign will hopefully help to address them. The stats on quality and price seems wildly optimistic. This is partly because the fact that organisation is a social enterprise doesn’t, in itself, have any effect whatsoever on the quality of an organisations goods and services, or the prices it charges. But I know at least one part of our supply chain where we stopped using a social enterprise supplier because of the poor quality of the service and at least one – our biggest spending area other than wages – where we’ve been unable to switch to a social enterprise supplier due to price.

The spending area where we haven’t been able to Buy Social due to price is printing for our mental health magazine, One in Four and other one-off publications. The frustrating thing is that it’s the one area of our activity where we’re a big enough customer to really matter. But the reason we haven’t found a social enterprise printer to do the job is not because their aren’t any social enterprise printers or because those that do exist aren’t any good – it’s because print is phenomenally competitive market and, as far we know, their aren’t any social enterprise printers who specialise in fast turnaround, high volume, low cost – which is what we need for One in Four.

Last time I checked, the Phone Co-op’s prices were pretty competitive but – hypothetically speaking – it wouldn’t be a commercial disaster if we spent £100 or so a year extra on our phone bill due to the fact we used a social enterprise supplier. Our print bill is equal to 8% – 10% of our entire turnover and that’s a very different matter. Ultimately, it’s a balancing act and, for us as a company, the position we end up at is ‘Buy Social if we can’. Hopefully, the campaign will help us to find more situations where we can.

The other question, though, is where the Buy Social campaign fits in with the wider challenge of selling our goods and services to the vast majority of organisations and people who are not social enterprises.  Some colleagues in the movement have suggested to me that SEUK’s energy could be better focused on helping social enterprises to sell to wider markets. I understand the point but don’t agree with it. Part of the mixture of idealism and pragmatism that makes social enterprise work best is that we find useful things we can do and do them – without being paralysed by the fact that we can’t do everything immediately. And an added positive is that while Buy Social is being facilitated by SEUK, it’s up to us as social enterprises to either make it work or not.

The Buy Social campaign clearly isn’t an overall answer to question of how social enterprises can sell enough products and services to keep going and grow while also delivering positive social change – but it’s useful platform for us to reach new customers who, by virtue of their stated social commitment, should already be at least partly interested in what we’ve got to offer. And social enterprises that are selling more stuff to other social enterprises, will be better placed to sell stuff to everyone else too.