Low perception of social enterprises

The public is unaware of what social enterprises are, according to survey findings. This signals that more needs to be done.


The public’s awareness of social enterprises like ProAge are low, according to survey findings. The social enterprise focuses on creating avenues and opportunities for people to age well.

The public is unaware of what a social enterprise is, according to a public perception survey commissioned by the Social Enterprise (SE) Associationand announced yesterday. Only 13 percent of the 2,000 respondents surveyed knew what social enterprises are. Of those who knew confused social enterprises with non-profits and voluntary welfare organisations, and even statutory boards like SPRING Singapore.

Of those who bought products and services from social enterprises, the survey found that many bought greeting cards, and painting and handicraft items, and 91 percent were satisfied with their purchases. The reason given on why they bought from the social enterprises was because of the social cause that the social enterprise stands for, as well as the quality, price and need for the product or service, which are reasons why the public would buy from a regular business.

Shared Teo Mee Hong, executive director of SE Association: “It is a business decision for social entrepreneurs on whether or not. Those who highlight the social cause include businesses like Eighteen Chefs (who employs ex-convicts), Professor Brawn Cafe (who employs people of different abilities, ages and socio-economic backgrounds) and Joan Bowen Café (who employs young adults with special needs).” On the flip side, there is also Laksania, explained Teo, who employs marginalised groups in its central kitchen but “does not want sympathy votes”.


Potential market to tap on

The survey also found that even though there is a potential market for social enterprises, of which some 55 percent have yet to be engaged, social enterprises have to be aware of some stumbling blocks. For one, businessmen are considered to be “non-buyers”. Explained Teo, “We can only guess that maybe businessmen believe that the social cause element in a social enterprise is being used as a marketing gimmick.”

On where the public would like to see social enterprises market their products, the buyers as well as the non-buyers recommend that the products be sold at retail outlets such as Robinsons and Tangs. In terms of the communication channels that social enterprises should market on to spread their efforts, the survey found the preferred avenues are broadcast media, followed by print media, the Internet and word-of-mouth.


No surprise 

These findings was no surprise for the social enterprises. Said Isaiah Chng, director of ProAge, a social enterprise that focuses on creating avenues and opportunities for people to age well, said: “I am not surprised by the survey’s results as everywhere I go, no one seems to know what a social enterprise is. Even in the social enterprise arena, we are not sure what constitutes a social enterprise until recently [when clear definitions came out earlier this year], so we shouldn’t expect the public to know.

“I do tell people I am a social enterprise but it is not in their face. We need to get our social initiatives to gain traction first and then use that as our advantage. Right now, we want to latch on to the business advantages and the value that our services provide. That is really what a social enterprise is about – it is business first or else you won’t be able to push the cause.”

Tommy Tng, general manager, sales and operations for Ability Enterprise, shared he too was not surprised by the findings. He represents a social enterprise, which runs an employment programme (see right) under the charity, Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD) that offers services including designing and making greeting cards, bookbinding and making corporate gifts. “There is still a lot of room for improvement on publicity particularly on social enterprises. There is a lot more effort on our part to create this awareness of our products and services.”

Currently, the SPD Ability Enterprise uses social media like Facebook, SPD’s quarterly newsletter, direct mailers and Web advertisements to publicise its efforts. “However, we are only doing a fraction of what we can achieve and we will be ramping up our marketing efforts. Instead of people coming to us, we need to reach out to them. We also rely on networking at events and participating at trade fairs.”

Moving forward, SE Association’s Teo shared: “With the findings, we wanted to clarify the objectives of social enterprises and that they should champion a social mission and support the employment of the marginalised people. But, they should be a profit-making business. In terms of publicity, we will be working with the Ministry to create greater awareness for social enterprises. We want to highlight the outstanding features of social enterprises.”

She advised social enterprises to behave like a regular business and decide whether they want to use their social cause as a differentiation from a regular business. “[As seen in the findings], they need to know the public is open to supporting their social cause.”


This article was first published in SALT