If you try really hard (and spend enough time drifting off at social impact measurement events) it is possible to draw a number of tenuous comparisons between social enterprise and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Their common embrace of the market as a mechanism to deliver social justice following the recognition of the shortcomings of a broken statist command and control model, for example. Or their naively optimistic symbolic imagery. There may be others, each less convincing than the last.
But it is not in these strained relationships where a potentially insightful metaphor lies. Rather, it’s in the context of the eloquent and elegant missives fired from London’s fashionable East End by the ‘impact first’ wing of the social enterprise movement. Those who argue that the term social enterprise is a verb, not a noun, that impact trumps ownership, that attractiveness to investors should be a determining factor in selecting legal form, and that asset locks and dividend caps are for wimps.
They may of course be right. Although others will disagree. That is the point of this ugly metaphor.
In a recent piece, albeit one that was perhaps more about social investment than social enterprise, Rod Schwartz nevertheless firmly nailed the argument that what is social is subjective. It follows that those who cling to the principles of social ownership and principally reinvesting surpluses as defining features of social enterprise have no exclusive right to this term. (Rod then neatly concluded that while we all have our own truths he would prefer it if the rest of us adopted his.)
Meanwhile, not far south of Skopje – the capital of the new Macedonian republic - lies the Greek territory which is also known locally as Macedonia. Hundreds of thousands of people here also share an attachment to the Macedonian identity. Consequently, as the FYROM emerged following the collapse of greater Yugoslavia, a naming dispute led to the new republic receiving the addition of the “Former Yugoslav Republic of” to its title as an introductory offer from the international community.
Back in East London, those extending their admirable ambition to put impact first to their use of language may exert a similar influence as the Greek Macedonians. Those of us who, rightly or wrongly, lay claim to social enterprise as a term which signifies a certain ownership model, enshrined social purpose and limits on profit distribution may want to exercise our inalienable right to self-determination. So, to be clear, perhaps we will need to start talking about Reinvesting-The-Majority-Of-Profits-and-Enshrined-Social-Mission-Social-Enterprise in order to distinguish ourselves from that other lot over the hills.
That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Crucially, the difference here – and where the preposterous use of metaphor utterly collapses, perhaps to reveal a tiny nugget of insight - is that social enterprise as a term is thankfully free from any association with thousands of years of blood, conflict and ethnic tension, competing claims to the allegiance of Alexander the Great, ancient myths, hatred, violence and oppression.
Rather, our friends in the East could simply make an easy choice to adopt an alternative and uncontested term which accurately reflects their ethos. Social business, social venture, ethical business or impact enterprise, for example. Take your pick. This would neatly avert the need for clumsy hyphenation, not to mention the most boring civil war in history. It would also free up much time spent stretching metaphors until they snap which could better be spent on delivering social impact.
Of course everyone must make their own choices. But dare we suggest, perhaps, that when it comes to investment, impact investment could be used by those who focus on, er, impact while social investment could be more narrowly applied to social enterprises? Maybe that’s not quite right either, given the oft forgotten use of social investment to refer to investment in deprived areas. Or the use of the term by some housing associations, for example, in a different way again.
If we can’t find non-competing terms which allow space for each other’s views of the world, perhaps one day, with a heavy heart, we might hold a referendum. My suspicion is that for each London-based, well-connected, charming and media-savvy advocate of impact first, there are thousands of people across the country, and indeed millions internationally with an attachment to the importance of ownership and the idea that social enterprise has something to do with limits on profit distribution and enshrined social purpose. I don’t know for sure. But, as ever, I worry when the voices of a handful of impressive and influential leaders appear to drown out a larger but quieter constituency. While of course we all hold our own truths, to dismiss others’ and their longstanding attachment to an idea seems to lack civility, respect and borders on an act of symbolic violence.
It is also possible that there is a genuine threat of balkanization here, which risks opening up our term for invasion from foreign shores. Most obviously from tech businesses who have already made a few (so far) unsuccessful sorties into social enterprise territory. It would be a tragedy if they - not unlike those people who think Macedonia is merely a fruit salad or a football team – overlooked the young and hopeful country beyond the badge. This is a fertile land, full of ideas, ambition and hope, not to mention shattered dreams, social discord, democratic deficits, violent disagreements, crumbling infrastructure and an embarrassing reliance on subsidies from Brussels. The people of that land deserve some respect, at least.