Supporting arguments

The often breathlessly optimistic world of social enterprise support has developed a gloomier outlook in recent weeks as the realities of impending cuts to public sector funding begin to hit next year’s budget forecasts.

To understand the impact of cuts of in regional social enterprise support structures, it’s important to have an understanding of the starting point. Support for social enterprise in London is relatively comprehensive and well established. Social Enterprise London (SEL), the regional umbrella body and support organisation for social enterprise in London, is roughly seven times the size of, for example, Social Enterprise Yorkshire and the Humber.

But when compared to general support structures for the voluntary sector as a whole, SEL’s capacity is fairly small. It has a smaller staff team than Hackney Council for Voluntary Services (HCVS)*, the umbrella body for voluntary sector organisations in the London Borough of Hackney, one of 32 London boroughs (most of which don’t have their own dedicated social enterprise support structures).

Anedoctally, my sense is that many social entrepreneurs around the country are lukewarm about the contribution made by regional support agencies but certainly in the case of London – I’m not well placed to comment on practical experiences elsewhere – those who don’t appreciate the role played by SEL and its equivalents may soon be in the position of not really knowing what they’ve got til it’s gone.

State-funded promoters of social enterprise do – quite understandably – have a tendency to overestimate the distinctions between social enterprise and other sectors of the economy. I’ve never accepted the (New Labour) view that social enterprise is a category of entities that are specifically not either straight businesses or voluntary sector organisations. A small percentage of social enterprises in the UK right now are straight businesses, the vast majority are voluntary sector organisations but there are major philosophy-based challenges for those voluntary-sector based social enterprises in accessing useful support from local voluntary sector umbrella bodies.

In his fantastic book, Your Chance to Change the World – The No-fibbing Guide to Social Entrepreneurship, Craig Dearden-Phillips, writes about two different types of voluntary sector group, ‘Strugglers Ltd’ and ‘Strivers Ltd’. Strugglers Ltd start from a sense of entitlement. They believe that due to the good work they do – or are trying to do – someone (usually the council) owes them a regular income and they angry when they (almost inevitably) don’t get the funding they feel they need. Strivers Ltd may be equally skint but their starting point is that it’s their job to sell the work they do to funders and direct customers to generate income they need to do social good. If they don’t get the funding they need from one source they go and find it somewhere else.

The problem for social entrepreneurs seeking support from local voluntary sector umbrella bodies is that much of the support on offer is tailored towards Strugglers Ltd rather than Strivers Ltd. In some cases, a socially entrepreneurial approach will be met with bafflement, in other cases it will provoke active hostility.

We had an experience last year that fell somewhere in between when our own local voluntary umbrella body refused to allow us to advertise some of our training services (for money) in their mail out because they believed the training would be ‘very expensive for our members’. This left me baffled for several reasons the main one being that I’m not sure why it’s the job of a voluntary sector support organisation to protect their members from the trauma of choosing between raising some funds to pay for stuff they want but can’t immediately afford or putting a flyer which is of no immediate use to them into the recycling bin. In their world, though, I imagine the right thing to do is wait until your work is heavily subsidised by the council so you can offer it for free.

The extent to which your local voluntary sector bodies are rooted in this kind of dependency culture will vary greatly according to where you’re based but even if you’re in one of the luckier areas, it’s useful to have somewhere to turn where people will be able to understand both what you’re trying to do and the way that you’re trying to do it. In London, SEL provides that outlet to a very high level at a relatively low cost. The currently tiny membership fee enables members to access (some) practical one to one advice on matters such as business development and finance, with signposting to sources of more in-depth advice. And SEL’s ongoing programme of events provide a mixture of networking opportunities and practical training in starting a social enterprise, tendering, sources of growth finance and getting Olympic contracts (amongst other things).

On top of that, over the last year SEL has been running Future 500, a scheme to enable London’s social enterprise to provide 500 job opportunities to unemployed 18-24 years funded through the government’s Future Jobs Fund (FJF). The creative, bureaucracy-lite way that SEL has administered this project has opened up the FJF to many social enterprises who would have been far too small to access the scheme through red-tape laden local council programmes. This kind of activity – delivering practical outcomes for social enterprises and young people based on the needs of both – is a clear example of what regional social enterprise support has the potential to do, and what other agencies are unlikely to do if regional social enterprise support is not there.

The government shouldn’t get bogged down worrying about whether it’s desirable to have more organisations that call themselves social enterprises but it can and should be encouraging a more socially entrepreneurial approach in all sectors of the economy. That doesn’t mean supporting ridiculous ideas like the direct replacement of grants with loans but it does mean providing encouragement and advice to organisations that want to seek a broad mix of funding for their work while constantly looking for new and better ways to work with the people they serve to tackle social problems. One way or another, that means funding specialist social enterprise support agencies.

*We are not based in Hackney, although we do some work there, and the training advert experience does not refer to HCVS.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Supporting arguments

  1. A thought provoking blog. Is the problem that when support agencies focus on ‘social enterprise’ they start with what they can see exists rather than what needs to emerge?

    My view is that any of today’s players will disappear – your CVS censorship example illustrates why. Tomorrow’s social entrepreneurs will be more demanding, more independent and less compliant. Can the regional social enterprise networks relate to and support them?

    I guess the acid test for me is the extent to which those support organisations themselves act as social enterprises, generating income and reducing reliance on statutory finding. Those able to lead by example will win the respect of all social entrepreneurs. The rest . . well I’m not so sure!

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  2. Good blog David – one of your many (and your praise for YCTCTW much appreciated). You’ve hit the nail with this one. So much of the VCS infrastructure is aimed at orgs which are, basically, unhelpable. The culture of the sector is one of learned helplessness. This will take year to turn around.

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  3. The ‘won’t know what we had till it’s gone’ comment (regarding regional support for social enterprise) sums up my fears perfectly. And it’s not just in London! These organisations form a vital link between national lobbying bodies like Social Enterprise Coalition, and front line social enterprises. We have to make sure they do not fall victim to knee jerk anti-regionalism – without Social Enterprise East of England, there is pretty much nothing in terms of a trade body/information service for social enterprises in Essex, Cambridgeshire etc.

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  4. This blog puts very well the potential for effective social enterprise support organisations and the value that they can bring to an emerging environment that is seeing socially enterprising activity developing from all sectors – public, voluntary/third and private. The particular usefulness of these organisations is their proactive stimulation of the context for social enterprise as effective and desirable responses to community need through the generation and dissemination of knowledge and information; market intelligence.

    The promotion and championing of the concept of social enterprise with key decision-makers and market-shapers is a critical role that cannot be performed as a competitor but must be provided as a value for money proposition to inform the confident identification of value for money solutions.

    Social Enterprise East of England performs this role brilliantly and has worked very hard to stimulate inclusive and sympathetic circumstances for the doing of useful business all over this region. Let us hope that such socially and economically valuable activity survives simplistic political theorising and arbitrary partisan vengeance as we look to achieve what we hope will the best from and for the Big Society.

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  5. I think we have to be realistic about 2 things: 1) the Big Society isn’t just going to happen – if people could take over the running of crap public services they would already have done so. Most of us don’t want to run these services, we just want our local service to be good. So there needs to be some support on offer for people who do want to undertake some kind of community engagement up to and including setting up a social enterprise to deliver these or other services. And 2) there simply isn’t the level of demand for any kind of infrastructre support that would warrent the resources of some kind of CVS or Business Link equivalent at local level. In the last 5 years we have all seen the minimal about of funding available for social enterprise support end up in some pretty odd places, creating no legacy or long term investment. We have to rely on our regional and national infrastructure organisations to act as honest brokers to ensure that the little money that is about is spent wisely (which doesn’t mean spending it all on themselves!) These infrastructure organisations have brought the social enterprise sector a long way in the last 5 years – does anyone think that David Cameron would even know what a social enterprise is without concerted campaigning? We must stop the baby being thrown out with the bath water and fight to save what works from indiscriminate cuts.

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