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We need leadership that prioritises people and the planet, not the wealthy and influential – Peter Holbrook

by Mirabelle Morah / July 2023

Serving as the CEO of Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), the national trade body for social enterprise in the United Kingdom, Peter Holbrook’s contributions to the social enterprise movement have truly been remarkable. SEUK works to promote social entrepreneurship as a model for changing both businesses and society. Since starting his role as CEO, Peter has established, developed and supported hundreds of diverse social enterprises over and has advised government taskforces in the UK and overseas. 

What is a social enterprise?

While many businesses are adapting to the social enterprise model, questions such as “What is a social enterprise?” and “What characteristics, principles and features define them?” are not straightforward questions to answer given our increasingly complex world, with many structural and cultural differences. Speaking on his definition of what a social enterprise is, Peter explains that a social enterprise is a model of business whose primary focus lies in maximising social and environmental outcomes rather than prioritising profits for owners and shareholders. In his words, 

“A social enterprise is a business that is designed and governed to maximise social and environmental outcomes rather than profit for owners and/or shareholders. In social enterprise, the profits made are reinvested in extending positive impacts or donated to support others working to similar goals”.

The best ways social entrepreneurs can be supported, specifically in the UK 

Speaking on optimal ways in which the government can provide support to social entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom, Peter first emphasises that “procurement is key”. And further reiterates the need to create clear strategies that increase the visibility and impact of social enterprises. 

Also read:  June opportunities for social entrepreneurs

On procurement, he notes that “Governments are responsible for spending well over one-third of all money within the global economy”. And by strategically utilising procurement, governments possess the potential to incentivise and reward improved business practices, thereby driving business reform through the intentional selection of partners. 

“Governments require a clear strategy for growing social enterprises. This must include enabling new market opportunities and access to affordable, patient and flexible capital. It’s important to also increase the visibility of social enterprises across public and private sectors and improve the understanding of the potential role they can fulfil in a wide range of contexts”, Peter further states.  

Educational reformation, particularly in the fields of economics and business is the third way in which the government can better support the social enterprise sector. 

“We need to urgently rethink the way we educate future generations and continue to challenge the notion that economics is a science with laws and rules that are fixed. This is not the case”. With a revision of the educational approach, an adaptable and progressive mindset can be fostered, thus leading to more innovative thinking and an exploration of alternative economic models. 

Lastly, he highlights that potential conflict of interest arising from governments’ associations with influential corporations and powerful elites, can be a hindrance in supporting the growth of social enterprises. 

“Perhaps the bigger thought is that governments are too frequently compromised by their dependency on and association with big businesses and powerful elites. Politics must be cleaned up and politicians must be resourced differently. We need leadership that prioritises meeting the needs of people and the planet, rather than serving the narrow interests of the wealthy and influential”. 

Common mistakes social enterprises make

Regarding common mistakes observed within social enterprises, Peter notes that the sector has much diversity in terms of structure, size and success as with any other segment of the economy.  

“But a common problem is that social entrepreneurs tend to be optimists. So perhaps there’s more of a tendency to underestimate the costs and time involved in getting a new business started. And an overestimation of the extent to which customers will flock to your business and tolerate poor quality or high pricing, just because it’s social”.

Peter Holbrook at SEWF 2014

Past SEWF experience 

When asked about previous experiences at the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) and expectations for SEWF23, his response reflected positive and enriching encounters.  

“They have been consistently wonderful experiences, full of the very best people working practically to improve things in utterly amazing ways. Overall, they have been an incredible accompaniment to my time working in the social enterprise sector. I’ve learned about things I’d never previously considered and got an insight into the complexities of global movement building. I met and developed relationships with remarkable people right across the world which have enhanced me and nourished me, especially in times of great challenge. We are all susceptible to those sorts of days, right?” 

In summary, the discussions with Peter aided in spotlighting the fundamental principles and challenges surrounding social enterprises, highlighting the need for government support, educational reform and a renewed political landscape. Peter’s personal experiences have shown the significance of SEWF and the remarkable growth and connections fostered within the social enterprise community. Finally, he addresses the common mistake of over-optimism among social entrepreneurs, emphasising the importance of realistic planning and market considerations.

Also read:  July opportunities

 Improving the economy and putting people and the planet first are some of the focuses at this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF23). Come join Peter and thousands of changemakers as we form new collaborations and share ideas on several ways to create better and more sustainable business practices in the Netherlands and across the world. 

Mirabelle Morah is the community and communications manager at SEWF