In Amitabh Behar’s recent Philanthropy Thinker column, he sees – and deplores – the rise of a new form of non-profit organisation (NPO) which is ‘located in the market’ and attempts to impose simplistic, often technical solutions to complex problems. He asserts that the demise of traditional NPOs is undermining two crucial roles civil society has played in the past – acting as a bastion of civic freedoms by holding the powerful to account, and encouraging creativity from the margins. In his view, this new type of NPO is in vogue with funders to the point where it is edging out ‘traditional’ ones and ‘changing the character of civil society’.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Behar’s general proposition but I take issue on specific points. The principal one of these is his suggestion that social enterprises – all social enterprises – are guilty of what he calls the ‘techno-managerial approach’.
It may be that social enterprises are more likely to follow this pattern than other categories of NPO, but I believe it’s a mistake to tar them all with the same brush. A couple of examples from my own doorstep in the UK: the Big Issue, initially a magazine designed to provide income for its homeless vendors and which now undertakes a range of activity, the aim of which is to create opportunity for poor people. Hill Holt Wood in Lincolnshire manages a woodland in an environmentally sustainable way, provides job and training opportunities to disadvantaged young people, including excluded schoolchildren and young offenders, as well as an amenity for the local community. It looks difficult to make the case in either of these examples that they are forcing simplistic, technical ‘quick fixes’ on complex problems, or that they are stifling creativity from the fringes of society.
What about the idea that social enterprises such as these are undermining civil society’s ‘watchdog’ role? It’s worth pointing out that only a tiny minority of even traditional non-profits expressly play this role. The general notion about the watchdog function of the rest is – as far as I understand it – that it is latent and consists in the capacity for organisation and civic action independent of state intervention. Again, it seems to me that at least some social enterprises show the same capacity. Whether and under what circumstances that is translated – in either case – into actual opposition to government policy is another matter.
It may be that some funders and investors are too prone to see social enterprise as the answer to all questions but it’s hard to argue that, as a class of organisation, they are eroding civil society. Not all social enterprises are alike. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being too categoric – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – to be too ready to put everything that has the same label into one box, even when that label has different meanings according to who is reading it.
Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance, and is writing in a personal capacity