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If we are serious about social enterprise then we need to be serious about the right support

18th May 2015

The leaders of two organizations at the forefront of business support, and specialists in strategic social enterprise developments over the past 10 years, share their views on what is needed to drive the continued growth and success of the Social Enterprise sector – Chris Redding, CEO, Peninsula Enterprise & Julie Hawker, CEO, Cosmic.

‘Social Enterprise’ has become a key feature of the economy of the South West, contributing directly to GVA, jobs and social impact, where a lot has already been achieved in encouraging the level of social enterprise start up, development and growth. This has been reinforced through the success of Plymouth and Bristol as the UK’s first ‘social enterprise cities’, Cornwall as the UK’s first ‘social enterprise zone’, and University of Plymouth as the first HE to have achieved accreditation through Social Enterprise Mark. And, in the drive to create sustainable and inclusive communities, social enterprises are increasingly stepping forward to deliver against some significant economic and community challenges. For example, both in the SW and further afield, they already play an important role in helping people to find work, especially young people, people with disabilities and ongoing support needs, and those that are considered to be the hardest to find employment for.

As Local Enterprise Partnerships, government and local authorities increasingly employ a model that seeks to deliver through small locally-based organisations there is a growing opportunity for social enterprises to take a lead role in helping develop the solutions and deliver services that support economic growth and community well-being. Not as a cheaper alternative to the private sector, but as one that brings the same commercial expertise and commitment to performance whilst adding the significant benefit of approaches designed to deliver community and social value. There continues to be a challenge in ensuring that future social enterprise business support focuses on this successful model and not one which is heavily reliant on grant subsidy, charitable funding mechanisms or volunteer support.

Peninsula Enterprise and Cosmic have a track record of innovative and impactful support services to enterprise and communities spanning almost 20 years. We are now entering a new round of European funding, combined with a new economic climate and an increased prominence of digital technologies in the way services are delivered and society operates. Digital technology especially represents a major opportunity to develop new approaches, open up markets and ensure the inclusive support that will strengthen the social enterprise sector. Social enterprises, just like other businesses, will adapt to the new opportunities that an investment in the local digital infrastructure brings.

Those regions that invest in an updated programme of support built around these opportunities will see far greater benefits than those adopting the ‘if we build it they will come’ attitude. To secure these benefits this support needs to focus on certain core components.

One digital point of support …and knowledge …..and collaboration …..and opportunity

People setting up and running social enterprises do have specific needs often driven by their personal circumstances or motivations. But they also have similar needs to other businesses – help to get off the ground and continued support throughout their business lifecycle. They need access to funding, help with business processes, help with marketing, HR, recruitment and management skills. To achieve this they need one point of support and ‘digital’ provides the ideal mechanism for this in the form of a social enterprise knowledge hub. A tailored website that is informative, intuitive, linked to other services, provides collaboration opportunities and supports the social enterprise as it grows is critical. This portal has to be linked to LEP initiatives around making access to business support simpler, to the Growth Hubs, Local Authority procurement practices and act to support, not compete, with other local business support service.

Making social enterprises the winning bidders

Government, Local Authorities and large private sector businesses continue to commit to procuring a significant proportion of their goods and services from local or social enterprises. The process can be complicated and support is needed to help social enterprises understand the process, improve their organisational ‘credentials’, meet potential buyers, improve their bidding and then deliver what they promise. In addition the support needs to bring social enterprises together providing them with the advice and support needed to collaborate effectively as well as to find suitable partnerships. It will also provide a platform for the Local Authorities to engage with them and build the skills and capacity of the local supply chain. This is more than just ‘support’ in the purest sense – and when done correctly it has the potential to transform local economies and communities.

Digital ….digital …

Digital technology is creating many and varied opportunities – opening up new markets for social enterprises to trade in. It brings with it a need to think about making the most that digital technologies can offer, to develop the skills and capacity to exploit it’s use at all levels. Location is no longer a barrier to trading, working patterns are more flexible and present new options of self-employment and development. This isn’t the future, it is the ‘now’ and examples of best practice, commercial services and innovative solutions to social problems are already emerging from a new group of social entrepreneurs. A ‘local’ programme of support – aligned with the digital infrastructure roll-out – can boost the competitiveness of local social enterprises and build rural and urban communities by offering new ways in which to engage local stakeholders and build markets. This is not simply about giving information, advice and guidance, stepping back and hoping for the best. It is about business support becoming part of the team that drives change and growth in social enterprises maximising the potential of digital technologies and new levels of connectivity.

Local Authorities and social enterprise …. a partnership for the future

Local Authorities are striving to deliver service efficiencies whilst increasing their achievement of social value. Local communities, rural and social enterprises are seeing technology and funding provide real opportunities that enable them to take responsibility for delivery of local services. But both sides need the right support to make this happen. The opportunity exists for support that brings the two parties together, allows development and piloting of solutions and the building of skills and capacity to deliver the services. It requires organisations to act as ‘enablers’ to make change happen and bring the initial expertise to catalyse change. It requires innovative approaches to funding or control and new consortia of public and private sector to offer support and skills development over the duration of delivery. New but necessary if we are to accept collective responsibility for challenges faced by our Local Authorities

These are just a selection of the support options Cosmic and Peninsula Enterprise believe can directly help address social enterprises develop business skills, meet the needs of public sector procurement processes, access finance and embrace digital technology.

A social entrepreneurs’ view of what success looks like is increasingly a mix of social value and commercial success and it continues to need specialist support to achieve it. Our goal is to jointly develop new services through innovative partnerships between LEP’s, public and private sector to continue to position social enterprises firmly within the region’s economy and to support them at every stage of their journey.

Social enterprises help to achieve wider economic growth and address inclusion, employability and deprivation. So, if we are serious about Social Enterprise then we need to be serious about the right support.

To discuss any of these ideas contact
Chris Redding @ Peninsula Enterprise : 0871 641 2119
Julie Hawker @ Cosmic : 01404 548 405.