Going big, with purpose

I’ve gone from a tiny organisation – my last employer had just one part-time staff member – to a huge one: the British Council is the UK’s largest charity, works in over 100 countries, and employs some 7000 people. Another change: my stint at British Council is part of a one-year programme, run by On Purpose, that aims to ‘develop leaders’ in the social enterprise sector.

(What’s a social enterprise? Good question. Simplest of the dozens of hazy definitions: a business for social purpose – think the Big Issue magazine.)

The idea behind On Purpose is that there are loads of start-ups with noble intentions, and plenty of funding and schemes to support the entrepreneurs behind them, but a weak spot still in terms of the managers and professionals needed to keep those new businesses going. And, of course, to make those initiatives broader and better, since scaling up the successful models is one of the big challenges right now.

So, 18 of us from various backgrounds – from finance to legal to management consulting – will be spending the next year figuring out if we’re the people to try and do that, while placed within various organisations around London. It turns out the UK is a bit of a leader in social enterprise – even if the average Brit might not have heard of the term – not least with the creation, in 2012, of the world’s first social investment bank, with some £600 million of capital to offer.

A small part of the OnPurpose programme is delivered through training, but most of what we learn is through the hands-on stuff that we’ll do with our placement hosts. These include emerging social enterprises, charities looking for a more strategic or business-minded focus, and large corporations looking at social targets alongside profit. In the case of British Council, which has been seeking to reposition itself as an ‘entrepreneurial public service’, the task ahead involves making that a reality: opening up this 80-year old, traditionally government-funded organisation to new partnerships including with the private sector, while remaining true to its original mission. Interesting times ahead.

More on that later. In the meantime, here are my questions as I step into the messy new world of social enterprise:

  • What can social enterprise offer to the international development sector – and is it even relevant to still treat these as two separate sectors?
  • Is the whole concept overhyped – or at least destined to only ever work on a local, specific level – or can it really change the way we do business?
  • ….And if I do overcome my cynicism: what might be my role in it all?

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