Donald Tsang

Tsang can still leave a social enterprise legacy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2011, 12:00am

In last year's policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen used the words 'social enterprise' nine times. This year he did not mention them even once. This glaring omission highlights how little progress has been made on this front during the past 12 months.

The government was supposed to encourage the private sector to 'befriend' social enterprises, introduce training programmes to nurture young entrepreneurs and organise fairs to raise community awareness and promote socially responsible consumption. None of these have happened.

Its one concession was to extend grants to social enterprises for purposes beyond job creation. Now, enterprises that work for the benefit of the elderly, children and youth and environmental development may also apply for the grant. Sadly, the key criterion of requiring applicants to be non-profit organisations remains.

This position taken by the government is not only myopic but contrasts sharply with practices overseas. Major countries, including Britain and the US, have introduced legislation that explicitly recognises that social enterprises seek to achieve social and/or environmental missions while making a profit.

In fact, there exists an entire new asset class, known as impact investing, that invests in the shares and bonds issued by social enterprises. Closer to home, a Singapore-based organisation is in the early stages of launching a stock exchange for these entities.

Until our government accepts that social enterprises should be encouraged to be financially viable, but not at the expense of their social or environmental missions, the sector will not take off. Tsang spoke of introducing training programmes to nurture young entrepreneurs in last year's policy address. And in the remaining nine months of his term, he can still fulfil his promise to the social enterprise sector.

First, he must remove the requirement that social enterprises be non-profit and instead require them to spell out their social or environmental mission in their constitution or articles of association.

Second, start funding intermediaries that can provide the capacity building and advisory services to both social enterprises and entrepreneurs.

To help young entrepreneurs, pair them with mentors from the business community or retired business people. Lastly, provide them with some seed money, say HK$50,000 to HK$100,000, in the form of repayable grants.

But do not make the mistake of trying to do everything within the government. Let those who are passionate about the field take the lead to build the sector.

Ming Wong is co-founder and vice-chair of the Social Investors Club in Hong Kong. Follow him on Twitter: @HKSocInvestor