Activism

Dan Gregory, Social Enterprise UK: Our economy needs a hand up to thrive

"The Big Issue model is inspiring, combining both charity and social enterprise – looking after people now, but also offering a way forward"

As The Big Issue reaches significant milestones this year, we can either reflect on what the past has brought or what the future might hold. Are we conservatives, nostalgic for the past and looking to maintain the status quo? Or progressives, looking to change the world and build a new future?

This is how some people see charity versus social enterprise. Oscar Wilde argued that “charity degrades and demoralises… It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property”. He argued against the benevolence of “keeping the poor alive” and urged us instead to “reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible”.

This is the promise of social enterprise – that we can create a more inclusive economy, leaving fewer people by the wayside and reducing the need for traditional charity to alleviate societies’ ills. The problem here, of course, is that while we build this wonderful new society, what happens to the poor in the meantime?

We still need conventional charities to mop up problems left by the economic models of the past

So while innovative social enterprises across the country are developing new models of fair trade, paying the living wage and our fair share of taxes, generating clean energy, creating jobs and shaping the economy of the future, we still need conventional charities to mop up problems left by the economic models of the past. We still need foodbanks homeless shelters and drug treatment centres.

Social enterprise is thriving but there’s a long way to go. Jesus – generally a pretty positive kind of guy – was less optimistic than Wilde and said the poor will always be with us. It seems we’re going to need charity for some time yet.

Since The Big Issue was born and social enterprise has flourished, policy wonks and ministers have been increasingly seduced by the idea of “social innovation”, inspired by the cult of Silicon Valley. Even under the Conservatives, Whitehall resources have increasingly been focused on innovation and disruption. We now have a pandemic of social innovation hubs, incubators, accelerators, catapults and labs.

While this is all very forward looking and exciting, the danger here is that the somewhat boring but critical maintenance work of charities and communities across the country is forgotten, undervalued and underfunded. Fetishising innovation distracts us from the invaluable work of volunteers, charities and community groups, worth billions of pounds a year to the UK economy and the critical foundations of our society. Without it, our economy would collapse.

But this includes the work of social enterprises. The caricatures of charity and social enterprise are, in fact, an exaggeration and not mutually exclusive. Not every social entrepreneur is based in a warehouse in Hackney, inventing apps that monitor your calorific intake through your Instagram photos. Others recycle waste in Liverpool, for instance, or deliver social care in Plymouth.

It may be less sexy but this is critical work. This is where The Big Issue model is so inspiring, combining the best of charity and social enterprise. It offers a route for people to meet their basic needs through earning a living – and so “keeps the poor alive”. But it also offers a way forward, through enterprise creation, training and development and a hand up.

We need innovation and we need to build the new economy of the future. But we also need to look after those who have been left behind in the past. Some of our greatest charities and social enterprises do both.

Dan Gregory is head of policy for Social Enterprise UK

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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