Cosmic are proud to be a social enterprise and as it is Social Enterprise week we thought we would get our joint CEO Julie Hawker to write this blog post about her journey with Cosmic as a social enterprise.
What is a social enterprise?
Cosmic really is one of the best examples of social enterprise I know. And I love the way we have evolved and developed, changing and adapting many of our business services, operations and partnerships, whilst at the same time remaining strictly true to the core purpose, social objectives and governance arrangements of our business. Social enterprise the Cosmic way means trading in commercial markets, delivering the best possible services in a professional and engaging way, and at the same time deriving financial profits from that work which we then invest in our social impact work.
What is the difference between a social enterprise and an ethical business?
Social Enterprise at its best (like Cosmic!) can be held accountable for its impact and performance. We are able to evidence this through our reports and happily stand up to challenge of how we can improve constantly. On the other hand, ethical business for me means any trading organisation which holds itself accountable on the basis of their trading activities (e.g. the legality, honesty and transparency of operations). But it doesn’t mean that they invest profits back into social impact in the way a social enterprise does. (And it also doesn’t mean that all social enterprises are necessarily ethical!)
Why is Cosmic a social enterprise?
We were established 20 years ago based on the ambition to impact in the lives of local people and provide them with much-needed support, skills and motivation in the evolving digital age. We didn’t necessarily adopt the ‘badge’ or title of social enterprise back then, but we knew we wanted to work differently. And so from those early days we understood how much more we could do by running a great business in order to achieve social impact. This form of business model has not only proved highly effective and successful, it’s also a brilliant way to engage and motivate staff. They can clearly see that their work and roles provide not only great commercial services, but also help for people who are disadvantaged in society. For the past ten years we’ve been proud holders of the Social Enterprise Mark www.socialenterprisemark.org.uk to promote our credibility and independent verification of that ‘badge’. I can honestly say that every member of the Cosmic team, staff, non-executive director, members and partners are with us and stay with us because of our brilliant social impact. Long may that continue!
What is the main issue you are trying to resolve by having a social enterprise?
Digital Inclusion. Our mission is to inspire every person, (and business, organisation, community, school) to achieve success in the digital world. We have a highly inclusive approach to that work and we’re always keen to seek out those in society with the most disadvantage and barriers to their use of digital technologies. And so this means those with long-term unemployment issues, or those living in the remotest of rural areas, as well as people with disabilities or long-term health conditions. We have that passion for changing people’s lives for the better and we truly believe that digital technologies hold brilliant solutions for improving not just communication, but also education, health, employability, enjoyment and aspirations too.
What do you enjoy most about leading such a strong social enterprise?
The best times for me are when I’m with the people we aim to support – and I witness that moment when they embrace digital and recognise its potential to improve their lives. In recent months I’ve been humbled by the impact of the work of my brilliant colleagues when these moments happen. Our work with Yarlington Housing association is a great example, and their tenants have provided huge inspiration and motivation for the training team here at Cosmic. Another example is our work in rural communities for the Princes Countryside Fund – motivation and empowering rural businesses to develop and thrive. Once you’re witness to that moment then its infectious – you just need to go out and do more! And matched against this work, I’m also a hugely competitive and ambitious person, and so our success in pitching, winning and delivering great commercial services always give me the buzz. And so I’m always looking for the next win!
What is your vision for cosmic developing as a social enterprise into the future?
We’ve got such great plans for the years ahead, and some major targets to meet both in social impact and financial success. Early in 2017 we will launch new programmes of support for people seeking employment and increasing their chances with better digital skills. We’ll also increase and enhance our digital apprenticeships programme working with a growing number of other great local businesses. 2017 will set us up for a period of substantial growth and development – with new job opportunities on the team and for working with a growing range of partners.
And so I know it’s going to be full-steam ahead with delivery of our digital support programmes and our great commercial services too. We have plans to develop and extend new services too – our work in Schools tech support has grown massively this year and we aim to keep that going and work to support many more schools. We also want to extend our work into new geographic areas and new sectors too. There’s going to be plenty to keep us busy that’s for sure. We are celebrating 20 years at Cosmic at the same time as developing the plan for the next 20 years.
How do you handle the balance between income and impact?
Every year our business plan incorporate specific objectives and processes for measuring their achievement – for both financial targets and social impact. And so our internal systems are set up to capture evidence, produce monthly reports and so the Board here at Cosmic gain regular updates and monitoring on performance across the two. This means we’re very quickly able to respond to any challenges and adapt our plans in an agile and responsive way. We’ve done that with great success for many years now, and been able to manage the vital balance between the two well.
How do you measure your social impact?
Cosmic has its own system for social impact measurement and it’s based on a ‘Theory of Change’ approach which is used widely in social enterprises to inform and structure the approach to impact measurement. We’ve recently developed a 3 year social impact plan with specific targets, outputs and outcomes which are then used to inform our ongoing evidence capture and reporting processes. We use a wide range of approaches to capturing evidence of our impact – from surveys and questionnaires, to apps, online forums, video interviews and focus groups. All of these help us to understand and evaluate our work effectively, and to build better services and approaches in the future.
What advice would you give to somebody who is looking at starting up their own social enterprise?
Just do it! It’s a great time to be launching a social enterprise and there are so many opportunities to develop exciting and innovative businesses right now. Particularly businesses with social objectives and with digital systems – for me it’s a ‘no-brainer’ – give it a go. Suss out who else is working in similar services or products and find out where the gaps are and what you can offer that’s better.
If you start with customers and what they want from your idea that’s a great place to begin – customer testing and feedback into development is crucial. Then test your approach to social impact and be sure it’s really going to deliver what you want, or more importantly what the beneficiaries of the service or product need. Don’t get put off by the challenges, just take it on the chin and move on. Don’t expect instant success either – hard work and failure are all part of the journey and so be resilient and enjoy it as much as you can too. And find someone who’s going to support you in good times and bad – you’ll need your ‘rock’ and I’ve got a few!
For any questions about social enterprise please do not hesitate to contact us on 0845 094 6108 or [email protected].