I was fascinated to hear a recent BBC Radio 4 programme whose subject was social enterprise—a concept about which I did not know much! In essence, these are organisations that set out to make a profit, but then direct that profit at “good causes.” Among them are a number of fairly high profile organisations in the U.K. (e.g., The Co-operative Group and Cafédirect).
The story that really caught my attention was about Greenwich Leisure Limited, an organisation that 14 years ago took over 7 struggling leisure centres that had previously been run by the London Borough of Greenwich local authority. They converted the organisation into a worker-led trust and have transformed it into an innovative, high performing organisation, that makes more profit, now costs the council only 20% of what it did 14 years ago, and has become a business model that has been copied by at least 110 Leisure businesses in the UK.
Mark Sesnan, the leader who took the brave step of leaving the relative security of a public sector job to embark on this challenge, speaks enthusiastically about the change in attitudes that he was able to stimulate in his workforce. By treating his people as partners, adults, and fellow contributors he has found that it has converted 80–90% of them into “happy, co-operative people.” One indicator of their commitment is that sickness levels in the trust are consistently less than 2% per year, which is exemplary by any standards in the UK!
The various programme contributors contend that social enterprise will be the business model for the 21st century. As one of them says, it’s the Robin Hood approach to business! Some might say this is “pollyanna” thinking, but I’m not so sure. I think (almost) all of us are looking for meaning in our work that goes beyond what we pick up in our paypackets at the end of the month. What can we all learn from businesses with a real conscience?