Social enterprises can help community to profit in dollars and moral sense

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am


I refer to Jake van der Kamp's column ('Faint scent of snobbery behind social enterprises', November 29) where he once again accuses social enterprises of moral snobbery. Of course Jake is wrong but I don't blame him. Instead, the Hong Kong government needs to be held accountable for Jake's commonly held but incorrect view of the sector.

Our government has insisted on providing grant support only to social enterprises supported by non-government organisations and run by people more skilled in writing grant applications than doing business. So why are we surprised when they fail? But this does not mean that the social enterprise model is flawed. Rather it is the government's policy that requires fine-tuning.

Jake, though, has made one point that I agree with. The Hong Kong government should not be providing handouts to social enterprises. Instead, we need to channel our public money to build a social sector ecosystem to encourage innovation, for example, by creating intermediaries that will match promising entrepreneurs with private capital and advise them on how best to build their businesses in a profitable and sustainable fashion. This approach is also consistent with Hong Kong's economic policy of positive non-intervention.

Jake's maih choi poh - or vegetable seller - example is a red herring. No one would say the seller is not performing a service. But her business can only be considered a social enterprise if she intentionally sets out to fulfil a social mission, for example, by selling vegetables grown from a local community greenhouse and reinvesting the cash back to revitalise a poor neighbourhood.

Finally, I would encourage Jake to experience Dialogue in the Dark, a 75-minute exhibition in complete darkness. After that, he should better understand what a world-class social enterprise looks like. In addition to providing jobs for scores of visually impaired guides, the exhibition heightens public awareness and reduces prejudice against the blind. And did I mention that it is funded entirely by private capital and has achieved profitability within two years of its incorporation?

So it is not the social enterprise model that is flawed, and the people in the sector are not morally snobbish either. The many passionate people who start social enterprises in Hong Kong have tough jobs to achieve their social and/or environmental missions while making a profit at the same time. We need to encourage them, not belittle them with snide remarks.

Ming Wong, co-founder and vice-chair, Social Investors Club