Is the largest social enterprise for UK athletes a ‘fake non-profit’?

I have written over recent years on the trend for corporates and private enterprise to cloak themselves in the clothes of the third sector – fake non-profits I dubbed them.

The latest suspect I have come across is a private limited company, Inspired Through Sport. It looks inspiring – ‘the largest social enterprise for Great British athletes’. But countless recent Google Reviews allege that it has ended up not paying staff, schools or athletes – even if what may have been paid are director fees, expenses and travel.

It is genuinely not easy to bring value to different stakeholder groups, here athletes, schools and schoolchildren, and perhaps what started as a hopeful venture has become a cropper. Anyone can fail, but it is the terms of that failure which mark this one out as a possible fake non-profit.

The company has not filed accounts and has been fined by an employment tribunal, while the directors have opened up a new company ITS through which they are directing new business. The allegation seems to be to be that if Directors have received monies through the original venture, this money originated from schoolchildren and their families, as schools fundraised to bring in athletes as speakers plus were promised sports equipment from the funds, some of which have never materialised.

One of the curiosities of all this has been the use of the Social Enterprise UK logo, which promises that this is a “certified social enterprise”.

When I flagged this as a concern to Social Enterprise UK, the team were quick to respond, indicating that the venture was not now a member and had been told to withdraw use of the logo. So far, looking at the Inspired Through Sport website which remains live, that hasn’t happened.

The footnote is one of language and trust. There will always be social enterprises that succeed and ones that fail. Social enterprises that are fake non-profits, running what become in effect scams, are rare, albeit perhaps on the rise. In that context, is the term ‘certified social enterprise’ misleading to consumers and stakeholders? There is after all a genuine certification, with independent assurance, in the form of the Social Enterprise Mark.

Social Enterprise UK is a truly great champion for the sector and has done a huge amount to promote social enterprise. I am proud to have played a small part at the beginning, having co-written with Jonathan Bland and Baroness Glenys Thornton the original business plan for the organisation – then as the Social Enterprise Coalition. As far as I can see, the team today are taking this case seriously and had already triggered a review.

But… why use the word ‘certified’? If it doesn’t cost to join and it is pretty much your word as to whether you are a social enterprise on the forms, and you can then tell the world you are in fact certified, then there is a question: won’t there be more fake non-profits that take advantage of the efforts of everyone else?

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