The best countries to be a social entrepreneur 2019

OPINION: After 30 years, we must get better at talking about social enterprise

by John Bird

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Big Issue.

When I launched The Big Issue, a street newspaper sold by homeless people in 1991, the public didn't understand our work. 

Our mission was to get people back into work and earn their own money legitimately so they could sort their lives out. A hand up, not a hand out.

We weren't the first social enterprise in Britain, but back then I never met any others and we didn't use that term – we just got on with it.

But 28 years on and the misunderstanding about what we do continues. I am always meeting people who say: "I love your charity."

The Big Issue is a business in every sense of the word. We pay our taxes, we try and make profit, and the profit goes back into our work, rather than to board members.

One of the reasons I think there is still misunderstanding in Britain about what social entrepreneurs do is because our education system, our class system, our social system is geared towards the Judeo-Christian concept that you give to people in need.

Everybody says "give, give, give" and actually that is one of the major problems - it makes the poorest among us a little better off, rather than more equal.

This in turn creates two species – the givers and the takers. And in doing so, you don't unify humanity, or create the equality and opportunity, just by giving people a load of handouts.

We're very good at relief and we're very good at emergency. What we're not very good at is prevention. And actually, prevention is a very, very simple concept.

Charities are always driven by the need to bring relief and are really, really important in emergencies. But the social enterprise movement is one of the best ways of breaking people's dependency on receiving hand-outs.

A lot of people know we need to improve our social services and health systems, to lift people out of poverty.

But we also need to create entrepreneurial skills among our poorest – and this is something the government needs to look at.

As the sector has grown over the years, there has been a general acceptance that social entrepreneurs are not just hopeful dreamers. You've got some real tough nuts working in the sector.

But one of the problems is people working in it are not good at talking about the work they do – and we have to get better at that.

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