Considering the need for regional support

Yesterday, I was in Birmingham for my first meeting as an elected member of the Council of national social enterprise support organisation, Social Enterprise UK (SEUK). The list of Council members, available if you follow the above link, hasn’t been updated yet but I am on the council as an elected representative of SEUK’s social enterprise members.

Readers won’t be surprised to learn that one of yesterday’s major discussions was around the future of social enterprise support in the UK. Given my role as a representative rather than a journalist, it would be impolite to report details of what fellow council members and SEUK staff had to say (they are, of course, very welcome to contribute comments to this blog) but I think it’s reasonable to report that – broadly speaking – a grand plan for preserving regional support did not emerge from our debate.

The big problem is money. Prior to the election of the current coalition government, social enterprise support in the nine English regions had been funded primarily through Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) with additional grants coming from voluntary sector infrastructure programmes such as Capacity Builders.

Unfortunately the RDAs were political constructs and the political party that constructed them is now in opposition. London is a real place, where the elected leader, Mayor Boris Johnson, has taken the choice not to provide resources for social enterprise support. The other regions – with the possible exception of Yorkshire and the Humber – aren’t places, they’re lines on a map. And given that New Labour’s plans for regional assemblies never became anything more than a twinkle in John Prescott’s eye – maybe not a concept to consider for too long – there’s nothing much left of the them but some lists of Members of the European Parliament.

This presents clear practical challenges if existing regional support organisations are looking to replace RDA money from elsewhere in the public sector. There’s an active ongoing discussion about the demise of the South West’s support agency, Rise, but whatever else has gone on we should all have some sympathy for the members of the Rise staff team faced with the option of pitching to Cornwall County Council for potential funding for their service based in Exeter. Exeter to Truro takes the same amount of time by train as London to Darlington and I imagine Social Enterprise London (SEL) aren’t going to attempt to offer a regionally-focused service in Darlington.

This is not a problem that can be solved by either SEUK or by regional support agencies themselves. During the relative boom times, there was wide diversity in funding from RDAs and, therefore, similar diversity in the services delivered by support agencies in each region. Even so, my guess is that it’s unlikely that even the smaller regional support agencies have a sustainable future based on membership fees for delivering support within the lines drawn on a map by New Labour’s regionalists.

That in itself raises plenty of questions for a range of what, in the New Labour era, would’ve been called stakeholders.

For social entrepreneurs/people running social enterprises the most immediate questions are: ‘Do we care (about the impending demise of regional support)?’ and ‘What are we going to do about it?’

For the government, central government in particular, it’s more or less the same questions prefaced with ‘Given you widely state commitment to the growth of social enterprise’.

For the organisations that currently deliver social enterprise support in the regions themselves, the question is whether they can find a sustainable model that goes beyond (just) being the regional organisation that supports social enterprises. Clearly SEL are better placed than most due to their existing consultancy service but as chief exectuive, Allison Ogden-Newton points out, being reasonably well prepared for times of scarcity doesn’t mean it’s easy. Social Enterprise West Midlands (SEWM), our hosts for yesterday’s council meeting, have launched the social enterprise directory, BuySe, in a bid to diversify their offer.

Whether or not the English regions mean anything much in general to the people who live in them – compared to villages, towns, cities and counties – there is clearly a significant amount of organisational knowledge, experience and goodwill that will be lost if regional agencies simply cease to exist. But what can the social enterprise movement do about that and, if regional bodies do disappear, how should social enterprises and social entrepreneurs be supported in the future?

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Considering the need for regional support

  1. David,
    Your question had me looking back through documents to discover that what we’d suggested in 2004 was collaboration with RDAs whose objectives could be seen as largely congruent with our own. We’d proposed creating a Community Benefit Society in each region based on the I&PS structure to provide a support role. The cost would be covered by revenue from for-profit social enterprise.

    This had been part of our strategy in Eastern Europe and as you may read in this anecdote it was first championed by USAID in Russia. In a subsequent proposal for Crimea government wanted a piece of the action and that was not for negotiation.

    http://www.p-ced.com/1/projects/ukraine/

    Approaching SWRDA in 2004, as I recall they’d responded with a “we’ll let you know if it matches our plans” without wanting even to read it. I don’t know whether RISE-SW existed at this time but no suggestion was made for us to deal through them. I wasn’t aware of their existence until 2006.

    From what I glean from your summary above a privately funded support infrastructure might well be the only real option. if there’s any socially aligned business still in existence, that it.

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  2. This is a post I could have written myself. I think it is hard for all support agencies to argue the case for themselves, it is up to those they support to push the case for them. Having said that having 2600 members at SEL at least sign up to our services on line says something about demand. Our biggest problem, in keeping with all those who provide business development in areas where market faliure is endemic, is that those who need our advise cannot for the most part, afford it. I think the slow demise of social enterprise support infrastructure will impact on growth, will scatter world class expertise to the four winds, and may not stop its life sapping progress at the door of our national body, which would be terrible. What we need is a coalition. It has always been in all our interests to pull together and argue the case for a national infrastructure offered at regional, local and national level as dictated by the needs of social enterprises themselves. We have a Government that is utterly convinced of the need for CVS’s that continue to be funded through a variety of means including the National Lottery, stoutly supported by their National bodies and yet social enterprise agencies lose out time and time again as each indiviudal organisation argues its case alone, hardly in the spirit of social enterprise.

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  3. Aren’t all businesses social enterprises was a question my colleague Terry asked several years ago. His point was that social enterprise as we understand it goes that step further:

    “The corporations involved in this almost fantastical deployment of the machines and communications infrastructure that we now rely on profited for themselves and their shareholders, and certainly produced social and economic benefit around the world. Those efforts were and are so profound in influence as to transform human civilization itself. That is the Information Revolution, and it is nothing short of astonishing.

    So it is safe to say that all these players in the Information Revolution — the enterprises that created it — have engendered almost immeasurable social benefit by way of connecting people of the world together and giving us opportunity to communicate with each other, begin to understand each other, and if we want, try to help each other.

    It is that last phrase — “try to help each other” — which is what the phrase “social enterprise” is getting at. As Bill Gates said in 2000, “poor people don’t need computers.” and rejected a business approach to alleviating poverty. That statement served to mark the clear distinction between what traditional capitalism did and did not do. Gates’ aim at that time was to profit from people who could afford his company’s products, while those who couldn’t were largely or completely ignored. That has been the accepted limit of traditional capitalism. It has been a marvellous means of social benefit and economic advancement for many people. Nevertheless, those excluded are just left out”

    But we haven’t helped each other much have we? I’ve seen many examples of it being quite the opposite, where few are welcome at the table.

    The last straw perhaps was the recent replication of our social business proposal, gutted of it’s social objectives to be served up as an EU accomplishment.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/social-enterprise-network/2011/dec/08/best-bits-european-social-business-initiative

    I hope I leave them in no doubt on the consequences of their dishonesty
    .

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  4. Broadly agree with Allison: more joined-up, more coherent, more resilient, and more needs-led support + infrastructure; with relationships (partnerships) at local, regional and national levels that makes (financial) sense for all involved. Very specifically agree about the potential to lose expertise and a huge amount of tacit knowledge from the sector.

    As the discussion at the Council started: there’s a big gap between what’s *needed* and what can be *financed* + sustainable. If support is all paid-for, does that exclude some of the very groups the movement is set up to help? If it’s subsidised, does that mean it’s at the whim of the private / public sector? Or is it about cross-subsidisation within organisations?

    On the solutions side, aside from partnerships of the nature I indicate above that bring rationality, effectiveness + coherence to the sector… I think networks, online, peer-to-peer etc will come to the fore more than they have to date. There’s much to do, mind…

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  5. An interesting read and thank you for writing notes, but I don’t really understand: why would it be impolite to report in a way that social enterprises can see what happens in the meetings of one of our supposed national bodies?

    Happily SE* are not the only regional support. Arguably there are better regional social enterprise support bodies in the South West and that contributed to RISE-SW’s leadership seeming to fail to move it beyond grant-dependency.

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  6. I offer a couple of extracts from our 1996 white paper to support the case for bottom up infrastructure development using the web as the medium for propagation: It really is worth a read in this context.

    “By going with the normal flow of free-market enterprise and the emerging replacement of monetary capital with intellectual capital as the dominant form of basic enterprise capitalization, it becomes easier to set up new companies primarily on the basis of invested intellectual capital. (See Post-Capitalist Society, by Peter Drucker). In plain English, socially responsible and forward-thinking companies can be set up quickly and cheaply–and these companies have indefinite potential for earnings and localized, targeted economic development. The initial objective is to develop model enterprises and communities, then implement successful strategies from those models into surrounding communities regionwide or nationwide, as needed.”

    “Top-notch education is leaving the confines of physical campus and four walls. A student in remote Zaire, given an Internet connection, can become a Duke-educated Master of Business Administration, while remaining mostly in his or her home village to the village’s benefit. The prospect of such decentralized localization of education and economic activity allows a great deal of autonomy, freedom and self-determinism in the village’s own character and identity. It need not be a risk to cultural heritage and integrity to benefit economically; the means by which such benefit will occur, how local citizens can have food, shelter, health care, and a basic sustaining human standard of existence can be determined at the local village level and then communicated at the regional, national, and global level simultaneously at virtually no cost via the Internet and a web site. It is this basic level of human sustenance, coupled with self-sustaining enterprise to provide this basic level of support, that I refer to as sustainable development — which is just another way of saying “people-centered” economic development. ”

    http://www.p-ced.com/1/about/history/

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  7. Hi,
    I am firmly in agreement with the need to build alliances to help get Social Enterprise onto a firm setting for helping develop sustainable, human centered businesses. Having recently set up a Social Enterprise, Cooperative and mutual support organisation, Social Enterprise Link (Wessex), I am getting to realise how much lip service, but how little practical and financial support there is for this.
    There are many overlapping interests and a 4th Sector social network does exist, but there is no practical forum. I am trying to get national and local partnerships for this sector under a banner of SECOM (Social Enterprise, Cooperatives and mutuals), but as I am at present not getting an income and spending 50 – 60 hours a week doing voluntary business building work, I have not pursued this with the vigour I would want. Senior people in Coops UK, John Lewis, Liverpool Victoria and Pauline Green have all expressed an interest. The more these discussions take place, the more likely an informal collaboration can be build to help give voice to the bottom up movement of people creating businesses that fulfil social needs with a business that acknowledges in am ore egalitarian way, working peoples central role in profiting the community, rather than individuals

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  8. Interesting article, about a very sad situation. The regions were indeed political constructs, but the conservatives’ ‘natural economic geography’ has led to Essex, Kent and East Sussex being lumped together in one super LEP. The real issue of course is that the funding for RDA activity, rather than being diverted, has been ‘disappeared’. As Allison points out, there is nothing at local level for social enterprises to compare with the CVS network for local charities and voluntary organisations, which makes ‘region’ (the word itself is surely possible to utter now?) a logical level for support networks to operate at. Our own network in the East, SEEE, has sufficient combined membership fees and sponsorship to keep itself going, but some central acknowledgement, even in words. for a service that really helps its members, policy makers, and the public stay informed on social enterprise, would be nice.

    At times, I feel that the loss of RISE may be the start of a process which will swallow up all the regions, and SEUK to boot, leaving us with perhaps KPMG or PWC to speak for the sector. At other times I can see a solution with the regions and SEUK working together and compromising to build something for social enterprises to access wherever they are – but it needs to be more than a website in my view.

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    • @3dsectorfutures – How much RDA money was “disappeared” too? Much more seemed to be paid to administrators and executives at support organisations and towards near-useless qualifications for support workers, rather than on direct support of social enterprises. So it’s basically the same as it ever was. Sadly.

      Are you sure SEEE is OK? They seem to have shed a chief exec, be moving offices and are taking a long time to answer basic questions about membership. Hopefully I’m just wary after being so close to the failure of RISE and SEEE’s current members are being kept informed and reassured.

      Isn’t KPMG a swiss co-op anyway? So there could be worse people to speak for the sector – like the private-sector-led RDAs and their fundees – but it would be far better if we can find our own voices, like Co-operatives UK.

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  9. Beanbags admin

    @John Merrit – have you spoken to SEUK?

    @Andrew Brady – Re: local CVSs, Voluntary Action Waltham Forest, where I’m a trustee, has included Social Enterprise London as a partner in its bid to the Lottery’s Transforming Local Infrastructure fund – http://www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/prog_transforming_local_infrastructure

    We don’t yet know if that bid will be successful but clearly there’s potential for local CVSs to partner with regional SE support agencies in local delivery. Maybe there’s scope for SEUK and NAVCA to work together to promote that?

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    • I had been talking to RISE and Social Enteprise Coalition on the subject, but I will try SEUK as well. I am not sure of the politics of these groups, but I agree with MJRay that Social Enterprise could do with a similar status organisation to Coops UK, but I would also like to see a reincarnation of the Friendly Societies type governance, which included Cooperatives, Mutuals and Social Enteprises

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      • Beanbags admin

        SEUK and Social Enterprise Coalition are the same organisation. It was a re-branding exercise. I suggested that they re-brand as Social Enterprise Conservative-led Government but that suggestion wasn’t taken up.

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      • Yes, do drop me a line John (nick.temple [at] socialenterprise.org.uk]. I’m leading on various conversations with regional / other support bodies, and can at least update you on those.

        We are the “similar status” organisation to Coops UK (indeed, we’re partners with them to govt). No particular politics from our perspective, just trying to better serve our members (social enterprises) and make the space more coherent / joined-up.

        Just to add that MJ is right to say that provision varies in different areas, and we are talking to local + regional groups of all hues (some areas have very strong local networks, for example)….there’s no silver bullet, but growing consensus that things need to change.

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  10. It’s regional funding, or funding from RDPE via regional development agencies which concerns me today as I contact my local council regarding an Expression of Interest for a renewable heating project which will re-invest in helping to stimulate the local economy.

    While we await a decision, the same RDPE funding is used to create a competitor for our micro enterprise development work. Work we’ve made considerable effort to relate to the same local council.

    Everything it seems turns into a fight for survival:

    http://www.ecademy.com/node.php?id=171586

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