One of our big motivations in starting Cohere was to bring a bit more clarity and definition to the world of what is sometimes called ‘social’ or ‘purposeful’ business.
While there’s an increasingly widespread recognition of the need to harness the power of business towards socially beneficial outcomes, this has manifested itself in a diverse array of different approaches.
From our own different backgrounds, we’ve come across a whole range of such efforts, from social enterprise, to corporate and brand purpose, to ethical consumerism – and much more besides.
Despite their shared motivation and individual successes, we’ve found these efforts to be surprisingly disparate, lacking clear routes to connection, definition, or clarity about how they might be linked or coordinated to mutual benefit. In some cases it feels like they inhabit different worlds.
And as the tentative naming at the start of this article suggests, there’s not even real agreement about how to define the collective of such efforts – the most common terms like ‘social enterprise’ have contested definitions, come with many associations, good and bad, and certainly cover only one aspect.
Bringing more unity and clarity to these diverse approaches could boost all the efforts to make business a force for good in the world.
To this end, we recently partnered with pioneering social business incubator Impact Hub Kings Cross and brought together a discussion with some leading lights from the different strands of social business.
During an evening of discussion and debate, a number of themes emerged consistently:
- The optimism and positivity of efforts towards social business is a strength, particularly when confronting the many formidable barriers involved. But it can sometimes tend towards naivety, and leave the sector open to exploitation and co-opting by those who are just interested in the reputational benefits, or as a cover for ideology. Social business can’t always be nice, if it wants to be taken seriously.
- Related to this there is the danger that efforts to self-define as special, additional off-shoots – rather than as genuine efforts to change the business mainstream, will lead many approaches to be seen as ‘nice-to-have’ – good for times of plenty, but the first things abandoned in tighter times. To become mainstream, we need to establish and articulate how social purpose meets core business goals – and it may be time to move beyond labels.
- If we do genuinely aspire for all businesses to prioritise social impact, we have to acknowledge that at the moment many do not see this approach as mainstream, ‘real’ business. To disprove this, social business needs to beat purely profit-driven business on its own terms.
- Making substantive changes to mainstream business at scale is going to need work across many different areas, from financial and investment markets, to cultural and normative changes, to promoting alternative models of business, and outside campaigning and pressure. None of these approaches will be enough on their own, and need to work in concert.
- To this end, we need to start building understanding and collaboration between the many diverse sub-sectors at work in this area. Making business a force for good is going to need a genuine united movement, not just a rhetorical one.
These are clear proposals to work on. As a next step we’re inviting anyone interested in helping to take these forward to get in touch – or to hear more about where we take this, to sign up for more updates using the form below.
Thanks again to everyone who attended the event, and in particular our four speakers, from right to left:
- Charles Wookey, CEO of Blueprint for Better Business
- Erin Gill of Arup & the Employee Ownership Association
- June O’Sullivan MBE, CEO of London Early Years Foundation
- Jon Ward of the Carbon Disclosure Project