Yvonne Roberts: The real meaning of social enterprise

If Cameron's new model army is to change Britain, we'll need my friend Mark

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Mark Peters is 32. His parents fostered a number of children, one of whom, John, was sectioned in his late teens. John's dispiriting treatment prompted Mark, a community youth worker and fitness instructor, to set up a social enterprise, Start Again. It homes in on the particular passion of a young person – in John's case, playing the drums – to motivate them to start afresh. In the past year, Start Again, with 10 volunteers, has helped more than a hundred young people, many coming out of care, to return to education, training or employment.

Mark is a perfect example of David Cameron's new model army – the one the Tory leader says will re-boot social mobility; tackle welfare dependency; reduce poverty and re-ignite a sense of community. He is helped by the Young Foundation, a centre for innovation that also provides business support and funding to help to grow social enterprises in health and education, and which merited a name-check in Cameron's speech this week in which he referred to the need for big government to shrink while acting as a catalyst for social action.

Cameron is right about the potential alchemy of social action. Credit unions, housing associations, Sure Start, The Big Issue are all social enterprises, sometimes using market based strategies to achieve a social purpose.

Often, a social enterprise has a chain reaction. In Balsall Heath, in Birmingham, for instance, another social enterprise supported by the Young Foundation is Saheli, a gym with extras, run by Naseem Akhtar and Shebina Gill. Women are prescribed women-only sessions at the gym by GPs, and the sessions improve health, reduce isolation and lead to much stronger community engagement. It enhances people's wellbeing and saves money.

Then there is Working Rite, which also enjoys Young Foundation support. Working Rite, set up by a former gardener, Sandy Campbell, matches a tradesman with a teenager for six months, to get him back into an apprenticeship, education or work. It's a small investment that brings a significant return.

In a Cameron country, there will be an urgent need for more organisations like the Young Foundation to act as intermediaries, giving social entrepreneurs a strong hand up. Social enterprises can indeed deliver miracles, but not without hard graft, and with disappointment and failure featuring regularly. They take time and do not necessarily come cheap – an awareness of which also needs to be part of the Tories' rescue remedy. The creation of Cameron's "good" society requires jobs and significant redistribution of wealth.

As Labour MP Frank Field says, Cameron's speech is a narrative with "a wonderful bold beginning". Given an election victory, what will count is how the plot unfolds. Can Cameron hold his nerve?

Yvonne Roberts is a senior associate at the Young Foundation

yvonne.roberts@youngfoundation.org

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