Social Enterprise: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Social Enterprise: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

21.07.2014 Blog

In early July, Intentionality CIC published a report called ‘Social Enterprise: What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ This was written by well-known social enterprise commentator David Floyd, and considered the sometimes very personal motivations behind why different social entrepreneurs set up their businesses. In addition, it looked at the ways in which social enterprises often attempt to put employees first and create truly caring relationships at work, which are in contrast to practices in some more traditional companies. For the report, Floyd interviewed various practitioners who either run social enterprises or are involved in organisations which provide support to social enterprises.

Floyd accepts that it is somewhat unorthodox to discuss love when writing about business. However, many interviewees acknowledged that it was nonetheless distinctively present in the DNA of social enterprise, and as such something that should be recognised. Peter Holbrook from Social Enterprise UK acknowledged that love was not integral to all businesses: “If you are going to buy a packet of Polos from your local newsagents, then you don’t necessarily expect love to be in that transaction”. Commenting on the word itself, he noted “love has so many different interpretations… I think it’s better to unpack the word love into things like kindness, compassion, empathy, care because that helps avoid any misinterpretation… I think that if you can introduce humanity and empathy and kindness and compassion into the delivery of services, you will be delivering better outcomes for your business, at least in certain spheres.”

Other interviewees commented that love was relevant to the reason that they had started a social enterprises in the first place, although interestingly many noted that anger or frustration had also played a role. Peter Holbrook said: “It wasn’t a love for a group of people that made me want to work on their behalf. It was recognising an injustice and wanting to put that injustice right.” Eugenie Teasley, Founder of Spark+Mettle, experienced similar emotions yet realised that her anger came from love for young people who were being underserved: “I naturally associate founding the organisation with rage and frustration, but it came from a place of love, of wanting to support young people in a way that they were not getting supported elsewhere”. Others began their organisation due to a feeling of love for a family member. Ben Atkinson-Wiles, founder of Active Minds, commented “My granddad had Alzheimer’s disease and it was the process of caring for him that was the inspiration for the business.”

Not only did many social entrepreneurs start their business out of a feeling of love or concern for others’ welfare, but for many this concern permeates their business, contributing to a real emphasis on employee wellbeing. Eugenie comments: “We can’t pay very much, so I think that it is really important that we show our appreciation for people. Back in October or November, everyone was absolutely exhausted, so we just designated it a whole duvet week. People could just do the bare minimum. It’s good business sense that people will perform better if they have got more energy.” Jane O’Sullivan from London Early Years Foundation added that “of course you will get on better with some people than others but I think creating a powerful ethos across an organisation and culture where the expectation is of respect, empathy, courtesy and kindness means you have less of these tensions”.

Alex Swallow, founder of the Young Charity Trustees Group, noted that social entrepreneurs often believe in living by the same values in their professional and personal lives. He says “I am the type of person who never sees my work and my personal life as entirely separate. So I don’t really understand people who can be exceptionally mercenary and just money-motivated in their professional life and a loving, caring person in their personal life.” Gaia Marcus from The RSA however raised a question about what love looks like when transposed into a business context. She comments, “Love, for a business, looks a lot like competence. We forget how great competence is actually just doing stuff when you said you’d do it and in more or less the standard that you agreed.”

Floyd concludes by noting that although there are some activities (e.g. cigarette advertising) that an organisation couldn’t do while plausibly claiming to be a social enterprise, most business activities have the potential to be carried out in a loving, socially enterprising way. It is interesting that social entrepreneurs’ focus on promoting wellbeing at work is echoed in the language policymakers use when speaking about all businesses. In Wellbeing at Work: the benefits, the New Economics Foundation notes that ‘focussing on well-being at work can benefit societies by helping working individuals to feel happy, competent and satisfied in their roles’. Many of the social entrepreneurs interviewed in this report were demonstrating innovative ways of prioritising employee wellbeing, as well as attempting to demonstrate a loving concern for their customers and the wider community. Some ways in which this was demonstrated included sharing ideas, training packages and models so that other people could make use of them, and emphasising relationships both within the organisation and between staff and customers. In addition, many social entrepreneurs were committed to the relevance of asset-based approaches, both in terms of their attitude to their own staff and additionally in terms of the communities in which they were working.

While talking about love in this context might seem clichéd or inappropriate to some, I appreciated Floyd’s report for highlighting the importance of an emotion that is often expressed within the social enterprise sector but little analysed. What’s more, in a world with increasingly blurred boundaries between work and leisure time, and with people of all ages expressing the desire to do work that is personally meaningful, I would argue that we are likely to see much more discussion of love in professional life in years ahead. I would recommend Floyd’s report for a thoughtful and timely examination of the place of love in the social enterprise sector, and am grateful to Intentionality CIC for daring to speak its name.


Photo credit: Nisha A via Flickr under a Creative Commons License