What is a social enterprise?

When businesses do more than generate profits.

Big business doesn’t always have to serve shareholders – sometimes they can change the world for the better.

Rather than paying dividends to investors, social enterprises take their profits and reinvest or donate them into projects, ideas or initiatives that create positive social change.

They can be big or small – from coffee shops and cinemas, to pubs and leisure centres, banks and bus companies. They can offer fair pay and working conditions to growers in Africa like Divine Chocolate. They can help improve the lives of Syrian refugees in Turkey through the sale of earrings like We Are One Collective. Or jewellery can also help people with anxiety be welcomed back into the community, just as the creators of Haringey-based Studio 306 do.

Or they can be magazine publishers – like The Big Issue. We are one of the oldest and biggest social enterprises in the UK.

Reinvesting profits

All the profits made by the Big Issue Group are reinvested back into helping vendors with a ‘hand up, not a hand out’. Like many social enterprises, we tackle social problems, improve people’s life chances and support communities across the country, whether through social investment with Big Issue Invest by selling the magazine or through the Big Issue Foundation, our charitable arm.

As Big Issue founder John Bird said: “Making pictures frames with a social echo – you get what you want while giving somebody in need support – is as I said quintessentially what my work is about. Create a trail of good behind you.”

But we are just one of 80,000 social enterprises throughout the UK, contributing £24bn to the economy and employing nearly a million people.

Social Enterprise UK looks after the biggest network of social enterprises in the UK and counts stars like Michael Sheen among its fans.

The governing body works with six government departments to lead public policy for social enterprises and that has led to them becoming a global authority on social enterprise over the last 15 years. With even more businesses considering their social echo, that remit is only going to increase.

The Big Issue magazine launched in 1991 in response to the growing number of rough sleepers on the streets of London, by offering people the opportunity to earn a legitimate income through selling a magazine to the public. Twenty-five years on, our vendors come from a variety of backgrounds and face the myriad of problems associated with poverty and inequality.

The above article by Liam Geraghty first published on bigissue.com in Jun, 2018.