The NHS Alliance has begun its annual conference in Bournemouth with a call to arms for the social enterprise movement.

The organisation has produced a report outlining the opportunities and risks of the initiative and setting out 10 steps to starting a social enterprise.

NHS Alliance chair Michael Dixon said: "It is significant that the [GP] out of hours provider that scored highest in the recent Healthcare Commission report is a social enterprise that employs local GPs.

"I am convinced that this is the best way forward throughout the NHS."

The report, written by Mo Girach, NHS Alliance special adviser on social enterprise, highlights a number of competitive advantages social enterprises may be able to employ.

These include the ability to raise funds through donations, higher reinvestment rates, and the possibility of tailored government grants.

In addition, the organisations may benefit from increased goodwill from patients and the public, who favour organisations they feel reflect community values, and closer working relationships with key partner organisations such as local authorities.

They may also have an advantage over commercial providers when recruiting clinical staff such as GPs.

It advises that organisations setting up a social enterprise should consider the organisation's purpose, vision, finance and legal structures, as well as drawing up a business plan with measurable goals, expectations and financial requirements.

But Mr Girach said there was currently little evidence to show that the public had "any great preference" for social providers over commercial organisations.

"It may be that convenience and perceived service quality count for more with potential users than the social objectives of the provider.

"It is therefore vital that social enterprises are able to demonstrate these values to both the commissioners of the service... and the individuals who use their service," he said.

See next week's HSJ for more conference news.

For more on the conference, see www.nhsalliance2008.co.uk