The launch of the Buy Social Corporate Challenge - which will see a group of companies spend £1bn with social enterprises by 2020 - is a catalyst for change. But the concept needs more than money to thrive

Andy Wates

Last Thursday was a red letter day for all of us at Wates as we were honoured to receive, for the second time running, the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the sustainable development category, which coincided with Her Majesty’s 90th birthday.

For more than 50 years, the Queen’s Awards have been recognising British businesses that excel in their respective fields, and so there is no higher honour for businesses in the UK.

At Wates, we believe that good business, done well, is an unequivocal force for good in society. Social responsibility isn’t a label that we cast around, looking to attach to the latest shiny initiative; it is deeply ingrained in our culture.

But what does that actually mean in practice? First and foremost, it means incorporating social responsibility into everything you do and the relationships you have. One example is our work with social enterprises. Through our partnership with Social Enterprise UK, we developed the industry’s first social enterprise brokerage. The social enterprise brokerage provides a directory of social enterprise by area and by specialism, all of which have been pre-approved to work in construction. We are delighted that there are now more than 70 companies on the social enterprise brokerage which trade with our construction projects.

Social enterprises must be market competitive – it is the only way they will be used, at scale, by private sector businesses as a genuine net contributor to the supply chain

However, we want to go further than this, and so we are committed to ensuring that every Wates construction project involves a social enterprise. To help weave this commitment into our normal day-to-day business, we have a network of regional social enterprise ambassadors who act as local champions. They are typically commercial, operational or procurement colleagues, and meet on a quarterly basis to share best practice and drive improvement in business performance.

More generally, we set our sights high when it comes to targeting spend with social enterprise. To date, we have invested nearly £7m, and we aim to grow this to £20m by 2020. This forms part of our commitment to the government’s overarching “Buy Social Corporate Challenge” – also launched last week – and of which we were delighted to be invited to be a founding partner.

Led by Social Enterprise UK and the Cabinet Office, the Buy Social Corporate Challenge will see a group of companies from across different sectors spend £1bn with social enterprises by 2020.

This initiative promises to be a powerful catalyst for change, enabling more jobs and training, and we hope that by playing our part, it will galvanise more companies, especially in the built environment, to put social enterprise at the heart of their business strategies.

But despite these positive steps forward, there remain a number of challenges that collectively we must tackle. Chief among these is the persistent perception that social enterprises are just charities. They are not. They are commercial businesses that reinvest a proportion of their profits into social or environmental purposes.

Linked to this, social enterprises must be market competitive – it is the only way they will be used, at scale, by private sector businesses as a genuine net contributor to the supply chain. To support this, we work closely with the enterprises in the social enterprise brokerage to ensure their pricing is competitive, and we help build capacity by providing pro-bono support in a range of corporate disciplines, such as financial services and marketing.

Ultimately though, the reason we invest so heavily in social enterprise is because it is a living and breathing model of how companies can be a genuine force for good. Investing our time and money in social enterprise is clearly, of itself, a good thing, but it is so much more than just that. We are investing in local communities and providing training and employment for those that need it most. Customers are increasingly paying attention to social value – spurred on by the Social Value Act – and this acts as a further incentive for us. We recognise too that demonstrating our values and commitment to responsible business also plays an important role in being able to attract and retain talent. Add into the mix a highly competitive market, where material points of differentiation matter, and the question is why would we not?

Andy Wates is a director at Wates