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The Benefits of a Social Enterprise versus Profit making Company

In our recent blog, Where will future practice income come from?, we explained how additional income is unlikely to come from your core GMS/PMS contract. As a result, many GPs are looking to supplement their income from other sources; from their CCG, from the local authority or in other ways.

It looks like the majority of new public money available to primary care will be funnelled through practices working together; the NHS Five Year Forward View, Vanguard monies and the much promised – but yet to be delivered – ‘premises’ money are all strongly suggestive of this. This is one trend in healthcare which seems likely to continue.

If you’re looking at working together with other practices, the chances are that you are either already a member of, or are considering setting up, a GP federation or a GP Network. In this first article in a series of articles linked to GP practice income, we will be looking at the benefits of running this as a social enterprise versus a profit-making company.

Introduction to social enterprise

Most GPs will be familiar with the traditional, profit-making enterprise, where the shareholders each receive a share of the net profits to spend as they wish. In contrast, many GPs know relatively little about social enterprises and their benefits, although they may be under some common misconceptions.

Working for a social enterprise does not, as is sometimes assumed, mean working for free. Everyone working in the business will be paid the going rate for providing their services, and suppliers all get paid in the normal way. Consequently, for most people, there is no practical difference between working for a social enterprise and for a profit making business.

The key is that any ‘surplus profit’ once all the costs of the business have been settled must be invested into the ‘social purpose’ as defined in the objectives of the company. Furthermore, if the business is wound up, any remaining assets would also need to be re-invested back into the social purpose. The precise definition of ‘surplus profit’ and how it can be spent is determined by the type of social enterprise. We will be looking at these different types in another blog post.

While the terms ‘non-profit making’ and ‘social enterprise’ are used interchangeably, it is important to note that a social enterprise can make a profit, and indeed it can be possible for some of this profit to be returned to investors in the business. It’s just that ‘surplus profit’ must go towards supporting the social purpose.

The practical implications and benefits of social enterprises

There are a number of potential advantages to running a healthcare practice as a social enterprise:

  • Social engagement is much easier

    Community support for social enterprises can be stronger as the business is seen to be working for a good cause, rather than for the investors. Local people may be more willing to contribute their time by volunteering or fundraising; the general feeling of goodwill may attract more patients through the door; there may be fewer complaints as people feel a degree of ownership, and; employees may show more commitment.

  • Access to alternative sources of finance

    Healthcare practices are traditionally financed through a combination of NHS funding and bank loans. Social enterprises may be able to supplement these with other sources of funding from ethically minded individuals or organisations who are happy to provide capital as a gift or at below market rates since they know that the ‘saving’ will be locked into providing the social purpose rather than extracted as additional profit by the business owners. Examples include community fundraising, crowdsourcing, bequests and legacies, and trust fund grants.

  • More opportunities for joint working

    It is widely understood that the future of healthcare must lie in better integrating primary care with secondary and social care and that GPs are key to coordinating a patient’s ‘healthcare journey’. The challenge is how to get such a disparate variety of participants to successfully work together. Trust is at the core of any working relationship, and some, if not most, of the necessary healthcare professionals may feel more committed to joint working for a social enterprise where ‘going the extra mile’ has a more direct impact on the community.

  • Reduced risk of disputes between business owners

    Social enterprises can be ‘owned’ in a variety of ways. Common methods include limited company shares and membership subscriptions. The most appropriate method depends partly on how widely you wish to spread ownership (e.g. a small group of GPs, all local health workers, or all patients?) Since social enterprises have minimal to no value to the owners, there is no goodwill to be valued and none of the resulting arguments between shareholders over the value of their investment on leaving the company. If someone wants to leave they are more likely to simply leave and take their services elsewhere.

  • Preferential treatment?

    Although CCGs and other public bodies are not currently allowed to prefer social enterprises in       procurement, they are able to set selection criteria such as ‘demonstrating community involvement’ which social enterprises may find easier to meet.

In conclusion

Social enterprises hold many apparent advantages in the primary care sector. Since most costs are simply salary costs, healthcare is anyway not normally a sector which generates large ‘surplus profits’. For this reason, the ‘benefits’ of social enterprise can be accrued without the ‘cost’ of losing access to the (non-existent) surplus profit. These benefits include inviting trust from the local community which should hopefully result in better health outcomes.

If a GP federation or Network is set up as a social enterprise, the owning GP practices can remain as profit making partnerships and still be paid by the federation/network for the work they do in the normal way. The GP federation/network will then engage with the local community and with other health and social care providers to become a true ‘multi-speciality community provider’ as envisaged by Simon Stevens in the Five Year Forward View. 

The bottom line is that social enterprises remain a little misunderstood. If you’re considering setting up or becoming a social enterprise, it is important to seek appropriate advice on the implications and on the legal entity.

DR Solicitors has already helped numerous GPs establish an operating vehicle for their joint working (GP federations and Network Companies), some of which have been established as Social Enterprises. Please contact Daphne Robertson or Nils Christiansen if you would like to discuss your joint working plans. We would be delighted to hear from you.

For more information about GP networks and federations and any other related issues, please contact Daphne Robertson on 01483 511555 or email d.robertson@drsolicitors.com