It’s War between Social Enterprises & Public & Local Authority Bodies: Top Tips to Survive it!

The word “business” has become rather taboo recently hasn’t it?. The recession has been a time of blame for many finger-pointers in public, charity & private sectors. Money is dirty, business is bad and the economy is on a downward spiral: apparently.

As a social entrepreneur I would like to point out here & now that business isn’t bad: it’s the way it is done that can have negative outcomes. “Values-driven business” is essentially what we Social Entrepreneurs lead on.

  • The idea that income isnt our only outcome.
  • That social impacts are one of our key measures of success & that individual and wider community benefits are absolutely what we encourage.
  • That Social Economy can be partnered with financial economy.

Social enterprises get a raw deal in the public and charity sectors in particular. The unusual combination of professional business activities & measurable social outcomes can create some very interesting responses!

I have personal experience of the “ first frown response” when I advise potential referrers that we are not a charity & that we at PlanB have to make money. This has been swiftly followed by the traditional “gasp of horror” when I explain that our work is most often undertaken within the charity sector.

Those of us who have experience of private industry know the nature of this beast is to revel in being rather assertive & demanding. We respond appropriately to this sector by using our awareness & experience of these typical behaviours to our best advantage. Knowing this market helps us navigate it properly.

In contrast, the public sector (and in this I mean Local Authorities such as councils, housing associations, health services, social services, educational establishments & others) does not promote itself as being competitive, contract-thirsty & driven, in fact the general sense is that they are rather more regimented & can even be plodding in their behaviours.

However, do not underestimate the quiet, & stern local authority animal. They are just as assertive & combative as their opposites in the private, for-profit sectors.

Even if your enterprise has the best rates, excellent references & can demonstrate ability and skill, you may not even get your foot in the door. It’s likely that someone else, from within the same sector, has got there before you!

Public sector representatives claim that there is no “elephant in the room” around procurement exclusivity & awkward tendering processes. That everyone in every sector has a fair chance at applying. This denial of the issue is a significant barrier to new starts in particular.

How do you fight a ghost when everyone else says it’s not there? Here are some ideas you too could try.....

  • As a social entrepreneur I should be grabbing big procurement contract opportunities with both fists, gnawing away at the application process & relishing every moment edged nearer to completion. For now I resist the temptation. Aiming high is admirable but exhausting. Pace yourself, consider how likely it is you will get the contract over bigger, better known competitors. Be honest with yourself: can you spare the time & expense over such a risk of rejection?.Its not a cop out to stay within your comfort zone & to use other small organisations as partners: it’s pragmatic, efficient and reasonable. Pace yourself & don’t let ambition hold you back is the message here.
  • Getting a foot in the door for contract negotiation is often the first big challenge that a female social entrepreneur faces. I have used my business savvy, creative flair & blatant name-dropping to get there in many cases. Knowing someone who knows someone is always helpful in business in any sector.
  • Oddly enough being memorable has got me places. At conferences resist the smart black suit. Wear something with real colour, texture and verve. The number of people who will approach you to comment & compliment you is surprising and this gives you a casual “in” to open the discussion around business, partnerships & your professional goals. You can also refer back to your conversation when you call or email any contacts made at a later date as they are more likely to remember your appearance ( in that savvy tangerine dress) than your name.
  • Don’t go in too “heavy handed”: My previous professional training prepared me to develop reams of contracts, service level agreements & slick, official reports to engage partners. I was wrong several times. The gentle, casual approach often worked best. An email through Linkedin, an enquiry or comment on a companies social networking page, a self introduction over lunch at a conference: these all worked well to trigger an invite to meet & talk more. Many of our referrers have not signed a service level agreement to work with us because we are new & small. They want to “try before they buy” and we get that. We can wait!

Over and above our ability to stretch the rules & learn tips to navigate the system, there is hope for other social entrepreneurs & SME’s on the horizon.

Through the new Social Enterprise bill making its way through Central Government & an injection of several million pounds to the social enterprise sector in Scotland, it seems a certain faction of the public sector does appear to have accepted that social enterprises are here to stay.

Amanda Carpenter of The Big Society Partnership says: "There is so much pressure on service providers and employers to contribute to their local economy and equal pressure on local government to deliver high quality, affordable services.The Big Society Partnership aims to help all parties make this a reality by bringing together the best of both public and commercial sector organisations on a transparent and level playing field, to ensure local communities and economies become more sustainable into the future."

This foresight will indeed aid the economy, refresh markets and create a better, more positive future for people working in and using public, third & private sector services.

Lucy Woodhouse-Haughey is a fresh, new start social entrepreneur based in Glasgow. She is currently leading PlanB Advice a unique, professional money & debt advice social enterprise with IFA husband.

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